When you stand on a fault line, even the slightest tremor raises the specter that the entire edifice may collapse beneath your feet.
Knowledge Unlatched (KU) is back in the news. Founded as a not-for-profit open access (OA) book publisher by Dr. Frances Pinter, the organization has gone through a couple iterations until re-emerging as a for-profit company headed by Dr. Sven Fund. (Despite its for-profit status, KU continues to use its old URL, with a .org domain.) KU is now hard at work on developing its program, including its business model. A major piece of this, recently announced in an interview by Fund, is the Open Research Library (ORL), which aims to be a comprehensive collection of all OA books, of which there are now (according to KU) about 15,000-20,000, with approximately 4,000 more being added every year. KU can aggregate all these books, which have many publishers, because of the terms of their Creative Commons (CC) licenses, which encourage reuse and sharing. And that is what has set off a seismic disturbance.
I wonder if some of the people who use these licenses have actually thought through their implications. The entire point of the CC BY license, which is preferred by many OA advocates, is to let anyone do anything they like with the licensed content as long as they provide proper attribution. Permitted uses include aggregating content for commercial purposes. If publishers do not wish to authorize aggregations and commercial reuse, they can issue a CC BY-NC-ND license (the “NC” and “ND” are for “no commercial” and “no derivative” respectively). In other words, OA publishers have at their disposal CC licensing options that would prevent precisely the kind of aggregation announced by KU.
To judge from some of the comments inspired by the announcement of ORL, however, the whole business of OA publishing and the use of CC licenses should be brought before the community of OA publishers before proceeding. Apparently there is, or there is supposed to be, an unspoken and uncontracted agreement not to act unilaterally. But that is, in fact, contrary to the license under which the works in question were licensed. The very basis on which CC was conceived in the first place was to eliminate the administrative burden of seeking copyright permission (because the licenses tell you what you are permitted to do without asking). Nothing in the licenses requires or even suggests that the re-user should notify the originating author or publisher of intended use in advance.
Here are a couple examples of the comments. Let’s start with a Twitter thread from @punctumbooks, an increasingly prominent OA publisher. The argument here is that KU is not behaving like a “real” OA publisher and that its ORL project is not endorsed by Punctum. Punctum is displeased that KU is building such an aggregation without first consulting the “community,” even though it is within its rights to do so. In Punctum’s words:
“All OA books have licenses that allow sharing, so KU has done nothing wrong (legally) in aggregating books on its new @OpenResearchLib platform.”
But what KU violates, according to Punctum, is the spirit of OA publishing and the community of OA publishers, for which Punctum apparently is a spokesperson:
“What the community partners have in common (in addition to valuing diversity = ‘one size will never fit all’) is a commitment to #OpenSource tools & infrastructures for OA books & to sharing expertise & resources and returning the ‘knowledge economy’ back to the public domain.”
Whenever someone invokes the spirit of an arrangement, the proper response is to ask: Did you get that in writing?
It is not only small organizations like Punctum, however, that feel this way. Here is Springer Nature on ORL:
“Recently, a new hosting platform, the Open Research Library, was beta launched by Knowledge Unlatched. This is not something we were informed or consulted about even though content from our SpringerOpen imprint was incorporated. While we have not asked Knowledge Unlatched to remove our books, and do not intend to do so, we have not endorsed the platform as a partner. We continue to review community partnerships and to advocate for the best experience for authors and readers in making OA books available as widely as possible without restriction. We believe that the development of community resources for open access books is best achieved through open consultation with the community, and would advocate this approach in future for all those involved in OA books.”
Springer Nature explicitly says that they support the use of the CC BY licenses, so why complain that ORL “is not something we were informed or consulted about”? Surely a hugely successful enterprise like Springer Nature knows that the first rule of business is read the contract.
The protest against KU’s actions have even prompted condemnation from OPERAS (Open Access in the European Research Area through Scholarly communication), which derides KU for not conforming to the principles of open infrastructure:
Based on the statement from KU and the early release of the ORL, the approach of this platform closely resembles well-known internet strategies to quickly achieve a dominant position by aggregating all available content and offering a free service to the community, while aiming for a lock-in of users and stakeholders. The ORL is neither open nor transparent, in particular regarding its governance.
OPERAS favors distributed infrastructure. So does Google, as its search engine then becomes the point of aggregation. Google is the autocrat of the open Web. Consolidation and concentration are inherent properties of media in a networked environment.
For its part, KU believes it is doing god’s work; the company’s tag line is “Making open access work.” In the spirit of transparency it released its most recent financial data, though it was under no obligation to do so. The figures reveal that KU had in 2018 revenue of $2,206.695.78 and a profit of $51,977.51, which suggests that this is a pretty small business. But it has ambitions: in the interview linked to above, Fund revealed that the company has plans to monetize ORL through the sale of data services. For $1,200 a year libraries can get information on the usage of members of their institutions on the ORL site. In effect, the business model turns the traditional library on its head: rather than gathering data on the use of its collections (which drives acquisitions), a library will now have data on the activity of its users for a database that the library does not have in its local collection.
It is an open question how big the market is for data analytics of academic resources, but ORL is moving in a promising direction. If it can indeed aggregate enough OA books — if it can become the largest aggregation of all — the data it generates will indeed be superior to other data services for OA books, as scale is everything in text- and data-mining. In this sense KU is indeed positioning itself as an overlay service for all OA books, monetizing the overlay without having had to invest in every book in the collection. It is perhaps not surprising that some other OA publishers are unhappy about this.
The seismic rumble you hear is the OA community expressing displeasure that someone — specifically, KU — decided to take that community at its word. OA is all about reuse — so let’s reuse all the OA books. A CC BY license permits commercial exploitation — so let’s exploit the OA books commercially. The disgruntled OA publishers now sound a bit like the grumpy traditional publishers that have complained all along that making things open has consequences, however unintended (or sometimes intended), that have to be anticipated and taken into account when developing policies and practices. Perhaps “open” should not be an unqualified term; perhaps there are shades of open and those nuances can and should be captured in different kinds of licenses. For example, if OA book publishers do not like the prospect of KU (or someone else) aggregating the books they publish, why not simply use a CC BY-NC-ND license? This form of license would enable unfettered reading and sharing of the work, but would put some restrictions on reuse. Such licenses do not mean that derivative and commercial reuses can’t occur — they simply require asking permission first (essentially, having the discussion that many OA publishers complain KU did not have with them).
What is clear is that simply wishing that the world work a certain way does not make it work that way. Practices must evolve; over time they change a bit, then a bit more. The global obsession with thinking about publishing as a comprehensive system that can be designed from the top down keeps running afoul of the vagaries of the way people actually think and work. For all the idealized platforms and manifestoes, we really live in a world captured by cartoonist Roz Chast, the world she calls “Unscientific Americans.”