Infrastructure is vital for scientists, publishers, libraries, and everyone involved in scholarly research and communication and its assessment and showcasing. For several years, I have been tracking some of the major efforts to build and control portfolios, if not platforms, of scholarly research and communication infrastructure and services — and the implications for the academy. It is a major story of mergers and acquisitions by (and organic growth within) the likes of Elsevier, Clarivate’s Web of Science group, and Holtzbrinck’s Digital Science. At the same time, there is also a wave of effort to build various types of open source infrastructure in support of scholarly publishing (such as CoKo), open science (such as the Center for Open Science), and library-based scholarly communication (such as DuraSpace). Several of the foremost enterprises in this open source arena recently joined forces with a group of universities that direct funding to open source projects to call for greater resources to be invested in support. This Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI) initiative, though nascent, may be the best hope to date of some kind of common collective action. To learn more about this initiative and some of its future plans, I interviewed Dan Whaley, the CEO of open source annotation initiative Hypothes.is, who is one of IOI’s leaders. The answers below are his, with some edits to language contributed by Kristen Ratan, Mike Roy and David Lewis.
Let’s start broadly, discussing open source, which can reduce costs, enable collaboration, or drive competition. Why do you see “open” as so vital in our community even as so much innovation is taking place among start-ups and even mature businesses in the scholarly communication and research workflow and management sectors?
While we all happily use closed and proprietary software in our daily lives, the scholarly world is different. We collectively invest in scholarship with the goal of advancing our understanding of humanity and the universe. It’s fundamentally collaborative. We *need* to do things like exchange data, integrate systems, harmonize APIs, and compute against citation graphs in order to more effectively accomplish those goals. The more friction there is in that process the more we are missing opportunities to discover. A team working in one area misses the crucial insight of a researcher in another. Closed scholarly systems that artificially restrict collaboration and the sharing of knowledge are a tax on human potential usually for the sake of profit. I think it’s also important to note that they are unnecessary — a failure of imagination if you will — even among commercial for-profit businesses.
As just one example, a few larger publishers have still refused to open their bibliographic citations under the I4OC initiative, even while most other major publishers have opened theirs. Closed citations are clearly not fundamental to running a successful publishing business.
There’s a massive shift in business models underway. The more we show that it’s possible to do things differently, the more we’ll encourage and accelerate that shift.
Open infrastructure is the solution to all this. For me, open infrastructure is simply shorthand for technology in which the incentives to collaborate and work together are built in by design. That includes elements like open source software, open APIs, open data and open standards, but more fundamentally it’s a mindset in which your reward — either personal or organizational — comes from working together as a community for the benefit of all.
As someone who is product focused, a question I always try to ask is what is the best user experience, regardless of who owns which piece? Does what we’re implementing actually make it easier for people to accomplish their goals? Closed systems often make decisions simply for the sake of preventing or restricting access that create terrible experiences and result in lower utility. Open systems do this too sometimes, but at least the inherent motivations are more likely to be aligned.
What is the unmet need you see the Invest in Open Infrastructure initiative addressing?
IOI grew out of the frustration of many of us that are trying to start and grow open technology projects in the scholarly area. It’s extremely difficult to fund these projects as non-profits. Most of us compete for resources from a shrinking pool of private foundations like Sloan, Mellon, and Schmidt who are willing to support technology infrastructure. At Hypothesis, the already small number of foundations willing and able to support us has dropped by half in five years — all while our need for growth capital is expanding not diminishing. Helmsley, Arnold, and Omidyar have effectively shuttered their technology programs, others are under pressure.
Similarly from the perspective of institutions that are consumers of technology infrastructure (e.g., those behind the Open Platforms Group), their closed infrastructure is increasingly under threat of acquisition and consolidation, resulting in shifting priorities and business models. They’re also feeling the pain of the lack of coherence and integration between the open systems they rely on. They are acutely aware that open works better for them, but there is no scalable collective action or funding model in place for them to rely on.
Our fundamental thesis is that by joining the interests of foundations and government funders with those of the institutions who adopt open infrastructure, we can increase the amount of funding available for open infrastructure substantially. This effort can support both the large, well-known open infrastructure projects and also the smaller ones that provide valuable services but can’t easily attract the attention of funders. We believe that the resources available globally within governments, agencies, institutions and foundations are far in excess of what’s necessary to accomplish this — they just need to be coordinated.
When David Lewis presented on the 2.5% Commitment at last year’s JROST meeting, I think it opened our eyes that voices within institutions were seeing the same thing, and that there might be a solution waiting to be pursued.
As Cameron Neylon wrote in his provocatively titled “Against the 2.5% commitment”: “Any proposal that starts ‘we’ll just get all the universities to do X’ is basically doomed to failure from the start. Unless coordination mechanisms are built into the proposal. “ (his emphasis). IOI is the mechanism we propose (and I’m grateful that both Cameron and David have joined the effort to architect this). Fundamentally what we envision is a way to bring together producers and beneficiaries of open infrastructure.
A particularly important outcome of this would be to encourage more entrepreneurs to start open projects versus closed ones, if they can see that resources are there to support them. We’ll never know how much more of our environment can be open by default until we provide the funding infrastructure to support and nurture that pattern.
IOI emerges in the context of many other recent initiatives to deepen collaboration across open initiatives, for example, the efforts to advocate for all libraries to devote 2.5% of their budgets to open, your own leadership on the Joint Roadmap for Open Science Tools (JROST), and the “Mapping the Scholarly Communication Infrastructure” research study. How does IOI fit together with these and similar initiatives?
IOI brings these initiatives together, with representatives from each. The 2.5% commitment frames the proposition that institutions come together to fund as a coherent whole, the Joint Roadmap encourages open infrastructure to work together more effectively. The Mapping effort is about a comprehensive survey of infrastructure, to inform analysis and suggest funding levels. All of these components are critical to the outcome.
It is impressive to see a global coalition for openness across various sectors of scientific and scholarly infrastructure. What are the benefits of bringing together sectors that do not traditionally engage with one another all that much? Are there challenges as well?
The simple and obvious benefit is that the different scholarly sectors all use much of the same scholarly communication infrastructure. Thus, any effective solution to this problem requires us to bring them together, and not just between consumers of this infrastructure within the sciences and humanities, but also between government agencies and academic institutions, across not only library budgets but also research and engineering ones. One important aspect that has been essential is that this be a global effort from the beginning, including the US and Europe and Asia of course, but also the global south as a partner from the outset.
The challenge is of course that all this is easier said than done. Even for those who are obvious beneficiaries, budgets are still tightly managed. Understanding exactly how to bring those organizations into alignment, and what mechanisms we can create or adapt to do so, will take time. Also, people are naturally dubious, assessing infrastructure is complicated, and funding cultures and mechanisms are very different in different regions. What we need to do is focus on early wins from which we can build momentum.
What do you see as the connection between “open” and profit-seeking status, in an environment where corporations profit on the back of open source software all the time while not-for-profits regularly utilize “closed” software development practices?
The enemy here is “closed”, not “profit” per-se. While the two often go hand in hand, that’s not always the case.
In the scholarly world, Hindawi is an excellent example of a for-profit organization that has endorsed open principles and actively works to support open projects, Ubiquity Press is another. In the larger tech world, there are many more: Automattic (WordPress), NGINX, Elasticsearch, Canonical, Sauce Labs, RedHat, and others. What we seek to reduce are the efforts to enclose infrastructure and the scholarly knowledge it contains— not to exclude organizations on the basis of their legal status.
Will IOI turn into yet another membership organization when we actually have too many collaborative organizations with too little aggregate support?
For now, we’re an all-volunteer organization made up of diverse stakeholders who realize that there is a problem that is solvable and needs our attention. We understand the skepticism that some may have when they hear about “yet another organization”, and I think it’s fair to say we’re aware of some of the mistakes of the past and are sensitive to repeating them. That said, the challenges we face as a community will continue to evolve and we’ll continue to come together in new ways to address them.
What’s most encouraging is the range of key groups that are working together, and the extraordinary people that are involved. It’s obvious that the timing is also right. Much work remains to be done.
Funding is one of the most important opportunities that IOI has identified for its work. How do you envision funding actually developing, practically speaking, under IOI? Is this about providing scale in terms of actual resource flows from universities to open projects? Or is it about securing grant funding?
From our perspective on the project side, it’s been obvious from the beginning that the sector is dramatically underfunded relative to the benefit that it provides. Our question has been: how can we increase this by an order of magnitude or two? What are the pieces that would be required?
Early on within IOI it became clear that a critical piece is a service that understands the open infrastructure landscape, surveys it regularly and provides analysis to funders, institutions, and open infrastructure projects. This entity would be a neutral hub of information, assessment tools, and would offer recommendations to funding bodies on how to strategically invest in open infrastructure. It would also facilitate coordination between projects with the goal of increasing interoperability. For the moment we’re calling this the Framework.
As we develop it, we can couple it with an effort to coordinate more overall funding, partly through a Fund that we would control — but the analysis and ongoing assessment needs to be there first. It’s also been clear to us that we weren’t going to succeed if we took the view that IOI was going to direct all, or even a majority, of the funds flowing through to recipient projects — nor was that necessary. We need to work within the way funds flow now. We won’t succeed if our solution insists that we replace existing mechanisms.
What else can we expect to see next?
The steering committee just met at the recent ElPub conference in Marseille. We laid out a number of tasks that we need to focus on moving forward.
We are planning the following:
- Some initial data as a result of the census of open scholarly infrastructure. If there are projects that are out there which have not yet completed the survey, we ask that you please do. It will help us serve you later.
- We are securing some funding that will provide for some resources to help accelerate the effort, and should announce that before too long. Any interested funders should contact us.
- More outreach to relevant stakeholder communities about what their needs are and how we can serve them. Interested institutions or agencies should contact us.
- We are considering at least one full time position to help deliver on this effort, and will announce that opening as it is defined.
The best contact email for anyone interested in exploring opportunities together here is: firstname.lastname@example.org.