Today, Clarivate is announcing that it recently acquired Kopernio, a startup launched last year to streamline access to scholarly content. Fourteen years after Elsevier launched Scopus, and nine years after ProQuest introduced Summon, this is the latest evidence that Web of Science’s new owners and management are making investments in their product and their business. Over the weekend, I had the chance to speak with Clarivate’s Annette Thomas and Kopernio’s Jan Reichelt and Ben Kaube about the acquisition and some of what we can expect next.

Group of gears and cogs coming together

What is Clarivate?

The businesses that are now constituted as Clarivate have as their core Eugene Garfield’s Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). After 25 years of ownership by Thomson Reuters, private equity firms Onex and Baring Asia purchased what was ISI along with a range of other databases and tools for $3.55 billion in 2016. Clarivate’s new owners appear to be prepared to invest in product and technology in a way that should cause the rest of the community to pay attention.  

Perhaps the most striking move is the recruitment of Annette Thomas, formerly the CEO of MacMillan and, perhaps of greater significance, Digital Science. Since September 2017, Thomas has served as CEO of the Scientific and Academic Research group. Under her leadership, it is clear that Clarivate (which in the remainder of this piece I use to refer just to its Scientific and Academic Research group) has a new sense of strategic direction.

Thomas is clear about Clarivate’s strategic assets. “Clarivate is the one company that is truly neutral in the researcher ecosystem,” she says. Thomas claims that Clarivate has essentially “100% market penetration,” with Web of Science available at 7,500 research institutions worldwide.” Clarivate provides several key products:

  • Web of Science, the citation and discovery database, which competes most directly with Elsevier’s Scopus and now Digital Science’s Dimensions, along with an array of other discovery and citation databases;
  • Journal Citation Reports and the Impact Factors that continue to be so important to publishers and researchers, with competition from Digital Science’s Altmetric and Elsevier’s CiteScore, among others;
  • The reference management tool EndNote, which competes with ProQuest’s RefWorks, Digital Science’s ReadCube, Elsevier’s Mendeley, and the nonprofit Zotero;
  • The manuscript submission system ScholarOne, which competes with products from Aries, HighWire, and others; and
  • The research information management system Converis, which competes with Elsevier’s Pure and Digital Science’s Symplectic.

Clarivate’s last major acquisition was Publons, which provides services to identify peer reviewers and encourage peer review, which is a good fit with the ScholarOne part of its portfolio. On first blush, compared with a peer review service, Kopernio seems like a rather different direction. I will return later to the question of whether there is a place for a commercial, non-publisher, non-content-provider in the scholarly communications ecosystem.

What is Kopernio?

Kopernio is a browser extension that intercepts the discovery to access process, everywhere from discovery services (Google Scholar, PubMed, Scopus, Web of Science, etc), publisher platforms, and repository websites, to make access more convenient. Specifically, Kopernio does two things at the same time. For materials that the user’s library has licensed, even if a user is searching a  repository, Kopernio ensures that the user ends up at the publisher version, entering one’s credentials behind the scenes to reduce the number of clicks. And for materials that the user’s library has not licensed, Kopernio brings the user to an open version when one is available (but never a pirate version), competing in this respect with Unpaywall. The first feature makes the tool extremely appealing to a publisher, which is able to identify and receive credit for a larger share of its usage. Both features reduce barriers and make access more convenient. As Reichelt put it, “Kopernio is really focused on ‘give me that damn PDF.’”  

As I have documented in an issue brief and presentation, the user experience associated with moving from discovery to access of the scholarly literature has tremendous shortcomings. Reichelt claims that some of my work served to inspire the product (though I take this as flattery), but the focus on making scholarly literature convenient is clearly a community need,  

Convenience is a term Reichelt and Kaube use readily and consistently. Noting that there are an estimated 2.5 billion “article transactions” annually, Kaube observes that there are that many annual opportunities to create frustrations or to facilitate ease. Each one of these transactions should be convenient. Reichelt points out that where a researcher has a lack of access to content we should think of it not as a separate issue but rather as “part of the larger convenience problem.”

At its core, Kopernio is an intelligent switch that steers users to the appropriate copy of an article. In library terms, Kopernio is a link resolver, albeit an intelligent one that reduces rather than increases choice and clicks for the user. Rather than licensed to and configured by a library, at this point Kopernio asks individual users to enter their university affiliation and credentials. When asked whether Kopernio has a knowledge base of which universities license what materials and if so where it is obtained, Kaube declined to explain how it was able to determine what usage rights a given institution has, claiming that this ability is a key part of its “secret sauce,” as Kaube put it.

Kopernio also includes a “storage locker” to which a user can deposit PDFs for later retrieval. In this sense, it intersects with products in the reference manager category.

Kopernio launched in the fall, and although it would not disclose its number of users, usage is “nascent” as Reichelt put it. It is clear that the process of building its user base has only just begun.

Acquisition

In acquiring Kopernio, it is clear that Clarivate sees an opportunity to help users of its services, including especially Web of Science, move more seamlessly to access articles. When Digital Science announced its new Dimensions product earlier this year, establishing pricing that was designed to pressure Web of Science, one of the key features was a ReadCube integration to improve access. Kopernio seems to offer the prospect of a user experience for Web of Science that competes strongly with the Dimensions model.

But Clarivate has greater ambitions for Kopernio than just a feature to improve Web of Science. Kopernio will not force users to the Web of Science as a starting point. Rather, Clarivate hopes to use its other properties, such as Web of Science and EndNote, to draw more users to adopt Kopernio. In this sense, Thomas underscored the importance of allowing Kopernio to continue to serve users on any site and using any research strategy, since one of its key benefit is that “it doesn’t require the user to change their behavior.”

Over time, we can anticipate that the usage data generated by Kopernio will be of interest to publishers and perhaps libraries as well. From a publisher perspective, an analysis of how many downloads were lost by failing to license a content product to a library might help them improve their pricing. From a library perspective, an analysis of how many times users simply cannot access a legitimate version of a paper they are seeking could help them understand ways to improve their collections. There are other ways as well that the Kopernio usage data, itself alone and together with other sources, might be monetized. Clarivate is continuing to establish itself as a home for data about publishing and access.

Finally, we should probably anticipate a deeper connection between Kopernio and EndNote, at least as an option for users interested in more sophisticated reference management than a simple storage locker. The nature of the integrations between Kopernio and other Clarivate products will determine the extent to which there are concerns about lock-in that arise from this acquisition.

Reichelt and Kaube each have an interesting history as start-up leaders who have sold to Elsevier. Reichelt is co-founder of Mendeley, and following Elsevier’s acquisition spent several years building out the broader platform infrastructure that has allowed Elsevier to execute key parts of its digital product and portfolio strategy. Kaube is co-founder of Newsflo, and following Elsevier’s acquisition spent several years managing it and its integration into the Elsevier portfolio.

At Clarivate, Kaube will serve as Managing Director for Kopernio, reporting to Reichelt who will serve as Managing Director for Web of Science. According to Thomas, Reichelt’s portfolio includes “overseeing researcher engagement broadly for us.” This appears to suggest that Clarivate is thinking about itself structurally as including researcher engagement products along with analytic products at least some of which are organized in to the “re-established” ISI.

Looking Ahead

Kopernio underscores one truism remarkably clearly: You cannot serve as a starting point for discovery, as Web of Science proposes to do, if you cannot provide seamless access to content resources. Trust, authority, starting point, and seamlessness begin to blend together in ways that all discovery providers should take note.

Clarivate appears to be continuing to establish itself as a neutral non-publisher non-content provider in the scholarly communications ecosystem. At the same time, it is building out a research workflow toolset in ways that are not dissimilar from many parts of the portfolio that Digital Science (half-sibling of Springer Nature) and Elsevier. Will it successfully double down on “researcher engagement” as represented by seamless access and perhaps next reach backwards, before the peer review stage represented by Publons, into authorship and analysis and data gathering? Will it ally with other publishers looking for an alternative to the Digital Science and Elsevier portfolios? Will it find commercial success as a neutral third party with enormous reach that it able to assess the entire community equally without fear or favor? The potential for Clarviate’s resurgence reminds us that nothing is fixed in our incredibly interesting sector.

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is director of Ithaka S+R’s Library and Scholarly Communication program. He leads a team of methodological experts and analysts that provides strategic consulting, surveys, and other research projects, for academic libraries, scholarly publishers and intermediaries, museums, and learned societies. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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Discussion

5 Thoughts on "In Latest Sign of Its Resurgence, Clarivate Acquires Kopernio"

Having implemented discovery services and link resolvers in the past, and as a great advocate of high-quality knowledgebases, I’m immensely curious about that “secret sauce!”

Publons is currently focused on tallying researchers’ contributions as reviewers, and thus enabling recognition of their efforts, rather than working on peer review directly. That said, their ‘publisher neutrality’ means that Clarivate is very well positioned to launch or acquire an independent peer review service.

This article references Clarivate’s role as a competitor of Elsevier and Springer Nature. How is that not being publisher neutral?

To be fair, Elsevier no longer refers to itself as a “publisher”, instead they are, “an information analytics business.”

But in context here, the difference is that Clarivate does not do any publishing work, and creates and sells no content themselves. If you’re a publisher, they offer some of the same sorts of analytics products as Elsevier or Digital Science (with their tentative connections to Springer Nature), but without the baggage of having to contribute financially to one’s direct competitor. Many publishers are wary of purchasing services from their direct competitors and putting funds in their coffers. Financial matters aside, many of these services require turning over large amounts of private data to these service companies, so in essence, one is feeding competitive information directly to those one is competing against.

A neutral third party, not seen as a direct competitor, may be more appealing to publishers looking to purchase such services.

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