I wrote about Clarivate’s proposed acquisition of ProQuest when it was first announced in May. At the time, there was a great deal of uncertainty in the market about the strategic reasoning, if any, behind the acquisition, with some observers wondering if the acquisition was principally driven by a purely financial rationale. Over the course of the fall, I have been reflecting on second-order consequences of the shift to open access, for example in the trustworthiness of science. I have reached the conclusion Clarivate’s acquisition of ProQuest, which was completed last week, is another second-order consequence of open. 

Painting, Waterfall at Terni
An engineered waterfall. Camille Corot, “Waterfall at Terni,” 1826, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Setting the Stage

Open access (OA) is in the process of transforming STEM publishing, even if today the progress towards open access is unevenly distributed by geography. STEM publishing is shifting rapidly beyond a content licensing business. Beyond the Gold OA businesses that many are developing, several major publishers are seeing the opportunity to develop a services business of one sort or another.  

A number of major firms, not all of them primary publishers, are working to develop user workflow and research management and analytics services. These categories of platform services are far simpler to offer in an open environment than was previously the case. Some such services are offered to individual scholars, labs, or departments. Others are provided through the library, the university research office, or the information division. These university-wide channels suggest the opportunity for enterprise sales. 

Providers interested in addressing these platform services needs have to think at a different scope than they previously have done. To take a small example from the past decade, the library’s decision to license an A&I database for a subset of fields is a different proposition than licensing a discovery and access service that will serve as the library’s front door for all users. Many workflow and analytics services are largely focused on the needs of the STEM fields, which has been a strength in some ways, but has limited their applicability at an enterprise level. To the extent that services can be structured at an enterprise level without sacrificing their quality, they can be more impactful and be sold more effectively.  

The Logic of the Acquisition

Clarivate’s Science Group, helmed by Mukhtar Ahmed, is the one that is relevant for the scholarly communication sector. Clarivate Science’s traditional strength, eponymously so, is in the STEM fields. It includes the former Web of Science Group, which provides a variety of platforms and services, including scholarly impact analytics, to universities, publishers, and funders. Anchored by Web of Science itself, other key products include ScholarOne, Author Connect, Publons, Journal Citation Reports, and EndNote. On its own, Clarivate’s Science business has had an extraordinarily strong brand with Journal Impact Factor and Web of Science, but it has not had enterprise level reach within most universities, not least because of its comparative weakness in the humanities. 

ProQuest brings two major businesses, one that provides enterprise software principally, but not exclusively, to academic libraries, which operates under the Ex Libris brand, and one that provides principally humanities and social sciences (HSS) and primary source content to academic libraries, operating as ProQuest. It also has a set of businesses focused on public and K12 libraries, which are less relevant to the acquisition. ProQuest faces stronger competition in the academic content business (especially through EBSCO) than in the enterprise software business, where it has established an extremely robust foundation through its Alma library systems platform, overseen by a best in class technology product organization. 

Bringing together Clarivate’s and ProQuest’s respective higher education businesses will over time provide most of the major content, systems, and services related to scholarly research, as well as instruction and learning. In one sense, content is the most important consideration here. The combined entity provides extensive content, a good deal of it uniquely, in the fields that continue to rely on licensed models, for example in humanities, social sciences, and primary sources. Observers have noted that, post-acquisition, Clarivate still does not have a primary publishing business, nor does it directly provide STEM content. But in an environment increasingly characterized by open access and syndication, especially for STEM, this will matter far less. Indeed, it might even come to be a financial benefit not to be saddled with a STEM publishing division.

With the combined entity able to provide such a complete array of content in a STEM open access environment, it would be able to focus on platform services. And indeed, looking at the combined entity through this lens, a learning management system is perhaps one of the few major gaps. With these elements, the combined entity will be able to provide something approaching an enterprise platform solution for scholarly research and academic instruction and learning. 

Open access in STEM makes it possible for a company to contemplate a business strategy like this one. In this respect, Clarivate’s decision to acquire ProQuest and thereby establish the first portfolio of truly university-wide enterprise information research services and platforms is a direct second-order consequence of open access. This is the second-order consequence dynamic at work. The affordances of open creates new business opportunities that would not exist if that content was closed.

Some Open Access Community Reactions

For the past decade, Elsevier has been amassing a tools and analytics business that competes directly with major elements of Clarivate’s portfolio, building Scopus and associated impact metrics, acquiring and developing Pure and Mendeley, and more recently acquiring Aries, to take a few key examples. With its enlarged portfolio, Clarivate is positioned to compete effectively with Elsevier — minus the STEM primary publishing.

At a purchase price of more than $5 billion, the Clarivate acquisition of ProQuest is the most financially consequential impact of open access. Unsurprisingly, however, leading voices in the open community have expressed substantial concern about the transaction.

From my own perspective, I do think there are legitimate concerns about the analytics driven business models that appear to be scaling up as a consequence of open access. The broader Clarivate offers “analytics to accelerate the pace of innovation.” Beyond the offerings for academic science, most of its portfolios are targeted to some degree on intellectual property, including focus areas on patents, pharmaceutical and biotech, and trademark and brand protection. Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe has raised questions about the privacy implications of such models, arguing that as a result the reader is often “the product.” It is little wonder that Invest in Open associated Clarivate’s acquisition of ProQuest with a further growth in what it terms “surveillance capitalism.” 

Notably SPARC sent objections to the acquisition to the FTC, the anti-trust regulator, arguing to block the acquisition and saying that no other remedies could suffice [available as a PDF]. It argued that an “effective monopoly” on library systems in ProQuest’s Alma raises concerns about anti-competitive practices — raising a question about whether Alma could be tied in anti-competitive way to other products. Additionally, it argued that with the acquisition, “Clarivate neutralizes…an emerging maverick positioned to compete with its core analytics business.” And, it suggested that, “Clarivate may attempt to portray the merger as increasing competition by creating a strong challenger to Elsevier, however, this is unlikely to materialize in a way that benefits consumers. These two emerging platform monopolies are likely to be leveraged in the research analytics market to drive out remaining weaker competitors, creating a duopoly between Clarivate and Elsevier.” I have trouble following the logic as to how increasing competition for Elsevier, which SPARC says is a monopoly, could lead to an increase in anti-competitive dynamics — isn’t a duopoly, if that were to be the result, an improvement over a monopoly? But putting aside the validity of this particular argument, it is important that these perspectives be considered and therefore unfortunate that SPARC was not able to weigh in until late October, nearly half a year after the acquisition was announced and almost certainly too late to influence the FTC review process. 

Reflections

The advocacy movement for openness in scientific publishing has been perhaps the most effective campaign for change ever seen in academia. While achieving much of its initial goal, however, the whole game has changed. 

Various second-order consequences of open access were anticipated years ago, including the shift to “computational publishing and workflow tools,” a prediction that “legacy publishers will coopt open access,” and an increase in consolidations among major publishing houses, just to take three examples, all of them by Joe Esposito here in these pages. Unintended as these second-order consequences may have been by advocates of open access, we now must grapple with them. Platform lock-in and analytics-driven “surveillance capitalism” are among the new concerns. What transactions will come next and can those focused on these concerns find more effective mechanisms to pre-empt them? 

With Clarviate’s acquisition of ProQuest now complete, we can expect a period of internal integration activities. As these begin to be completed, the combined entity will introduce new features that combine strengths in discovery, analytics, and library systems, at least. Over time we may see the emergence of a new kind of product offering that leverages the strategy discussed above. Given the current strengths of Alma in the market, it would not be a surprise if such a strategy were at least initially centered more with the library as compared with the channels that Elsevier has been pursuing. In that respect, this acquisition could prove to have real benefits not only to end-users but also to libraries interested in enlarging their enterprise role. 

Beyond this transaction, openness has both enormous benefits and also, given the dynamism of the marketplace, potential second-order tradeoffs or even risks. As we examine additional directions for scientific communication — whether it be advocacy for open data and open peer review, the complexities of scientific globalization or identity management, or even the fight against surveillance capitalism — the consequences are similarly complex. 

 

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is director of Libraries, Scholarly Communication, and Museums for Ithaka S+R. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Discussion

10 Thoughts on "The New Clarivate Science: A Second-Order Consequence of Open Access"

The second-order argument advanced by Schonfeld feels as if there were a kind of deterministic, if subtle, consequence to open access. Would it not be easier and better to consider this as a chess game where people on opposite sides make moves with various strategies in mind. It is not open access that is the first cause of these 2nd-order hypothetical consequences; it is the result of strategic visions designed from entirely different perspectives. On the OA side, the goal is to improve scientific communication and publishing. On the publishers’ side, particularly the large commercial publishers, the goal is to secure and improve a form of profitability often presented as “sustainability” (which is an interesting example of how to pervert the English language).
Incidentally, Surveillance capitalism mentioned by IOI is simply an echo of Shoshana Zuboff’s book. This book has met with some reading success, I believe.

Thanks Jean-Claude. I agree that there are different metaphors that can be used to describe the dynamic. In this case, I would not use a “chess game” metaphor to describe the process that I was writing about, because I do not think there is a clear bifurcation with publishers on one side and OA advocates on the other. Today, some of the most strident advocates for OA are publishers, as evidenced by Tuesday’s piece in these pages.

Your argument holds only if you take OA to refer to a generic, unproblematic, status for documents. However, OA is shaped differently by different actors to fit specific objectives: in particular, is it shaped to ensure profitable revenues, or is it shaped to enhance the Great Conversation of knowledge production?

Many publishers present Gold-APC-OA as if it were the only form of legitimate or acceptable OA, and they offer their merchandise – for that is what they own, is it not? – in this fashion. But others (and I would agree with them) argue that APC-based OA cannot bring about a form of equitable OA. As I heard recently in a conference, APC-Based OA does not remove paywalls; it just shifts them around!

Just look at how cOAlition S has evolved, and how AmeliCA has been an important element in that evolution. If you do, you will understand that, nowadays, the fight – for it is a constant fight, and has been for the last 25 years at least – is no longer about OA generically, but about the shape that OA should sport.

In conclusion, my point is simple: publishing must serve the Great Conversation of knowledge production, not the reverse. Arguing that publishing, in this particular sector, is best served by commercial interests is to succumb to the myth that market solutions are always the best to achieve any aim. If carefully regulated, markets can be useful in some circumstances, but they are not a universal solution to human circumstances, and the realm of knowledge production amply shows that the commercial structuring of knowledge publishing negatively affects the very process of knowledge production.

The process of knowledge production is so very fundamental to humanity’s fate that I would strongly advise to approach its management and governance with extreme respect and care.

I think I understand your perspective on this. Even so, I don’t think there are simply two positions out there.

I agree with you: there are more than two positions out there. The point though is not about the number of positions; it is about the fact that these positions are in tension, and even conflict with each other.

Publishers like to deny this conflict. They like, as they regularly put it, to be “part of the conversation”. Appearing benign, gentle and peaceful serves their objectives better than an aggressive stance, but, to the careful observer, reality is not changed by rhetoric.

How many positions are there? Let me try a first cut at this:

1. Dominant researchers (editors-in-chief, heads of labs, chairs of important committees, etc., caught in status competition ultimately structured by JIFs). Some of these researchers are very close to publishers, all the more so that their role in a JIF-prestigious journal is good cv material, and serves their career.
2. Dominated researchers (young, untenured, researchers in particular. Very much caught by status competition structured by JIFS: their careers depend on that structure and its effects)
3. Large commercial publishers (Larivière’s oligopoly): they have managed to structure a market made up of a large number of journals around the JIF
4. Small commercial publishers (potential preys of #3): They hope to join the JIF-structured market despite the fact that this is the best way to be swallowed up.
5. Large society publishers (often behave like large commercial publishers, but are nonetheless somewhat different from them. They do have a fundamental scientific role to play)
6. Small society publishers (potential preys of #3). The worst outcome for them is selling the journal title to a large commercial publisher. If they do, any form of editorial resistance to the publisher’s will not be credible unless they seriously consider the nnedds and difficulties associated with creating a new journal (think of “Lingua”/”Glossa”, for example).
7 University administrators (caught in institutional forms of competition ultimately related in some fashion to the JIFs).
8. Librarians (caught between a rock and a hard place. Librarians are a dominated category within most administrative structures, which means that their negotiating power is limited. Publishers love to negotiate with them because of their inherent institutional weakness. Furthermore, publishers know that, thanks to the librarian shield, researchers often know or understand little about the political economy of contemporary scientific publishing and its system). But librarians also control acquisition budgets and they have been known to pay for APCs!! Consortia of libraries were thought up as a way to strengthen the negotiating position of libraries, but their main effect has been to simplify the market, and, as a result, to decrease transaction costs for publishers.
9. Public funding agencies: very important. They have money, lots of money, but they have not been much involved in publishing issues until recently. Publishing is a small fraction of research budgets, which opens the door to their thinking about taking direct responsibility for publishing. ORE at the European Commission is exploring this path, but they have three problems to solve:
a. effects of competition on countries’ rankings (based again, in some way, to JIFs). The ministries to which they report may not be happy if rankings go down, however flawed they may be.
b. governance of these new publication platforms. The best way would be some form of internationalization of these publishing efforts.
c. creating new forms of evaluation corresponding to the actual objectives of these funding agencies, and not the JIFs. One thing funding agencies regularly seem to miss is that the research results they get do not correspond very well to the objectives of the research programmes they develop. In other words, they have a problem implementing the science policy of their national government. However, they are not directly ranked, which gives them more autonomy.
Meanwhile, many pay for APCs!!!
10. Private funding agencies (charities): freer to move than public funding agencies, they have done more publishing experimenting as a result (e.g. Gates, Wellcome, etc.). Their moving into consortia of funding agencies such as cOAlition S is a hopeful sign, even though Plan S needs to be revised and reformed. Some of them also pay for APCs.

I will stop with these 10 positions, even though one should also look at researchers in poorer countries (or poorer institutions), and the kind of publishing done in such regions or countries. The point is that one cannot speak about scholarly publishing as if no form of power existed in its midst, as if all actors were good friends. Looking at these 10 perspectives (and more) allows to understand that OA cannot be taken up by anyone without consequences about its nature, meaning, and prospects. It is not because publishers now appear to support OA that they are talking about the same thing as the OA of librarians, of dominated- or Global South-researchers, etc.

Jean-Claude, This is the beginning of an extremely useful typology. Would you consider writing it up into a post for the Kitchen?

It seems more like groupthink to me. Elsevier has this analytics strategy, so, of course, Clarivate decides to copy it. Never underestimate CEOs on CNBC listening to each other. IP meaning intellectual property seems like a hollow thing to bet your company on.

I don’t think what you are saying about groupthink is inconsistent with my analysis. Competitors assess one another’s directions and determine how best to position themselves effectively against one another. If one sees the other is doing something smart, they may try to copy it. It’s a lot more than watching one another’s talking points on CNBC in my experience.

Not sure what you’re getting at around intellectual property. IP-intensive work is an enormous component of the US and many other economies. https://www.uspto.gov/learning-and-resources/ip-motion/intellectual-property-and-us-economy

I would suggest a somewhat different way of viewing these market shifts. If one believes, as I do, that open, as a business model, is a disruptive innovation, not in the general sense, but in the specific way Clayton Christensen used the term, the moves made by the major commercial publishers not only make sense, they are inevitable. As open access became an alternative to subscriptions, established commercial publishers looked at the market and decided to invest in new and improved products that they could sell to their established customers for higher prices and thus generate higher profit margins, that is analytics. They then became willing to abandon the lower end of the market, less profitable scholarly journals, where competition is difficult, and margins are low. Christensen uses the example of the steel industry to illustrate how this process plays out. (A good version can be found here.) I have argued that this is what is happening with scholarly communication. As Roger puts it that, “Indeed, it might even come to be a financial benefit not to be saddled with a STEM publishing division.” This is what Christensen would predict, it is better not to be encumbered with the low end of the market, journal publishing, when the real opportunity is in the higher end of the market, in analytics.

This does not mean we should be concerned with the down sides of this process; we should. But if we understand the market dynamics, there are grounds for hope. What Christensen’s theory argues is that proponents of open need to continue to push up market from the bottom by creating open alternatives to commercial products working from the simplest, capturing them, and then moving up market to the next target. The competitive advantages of open will allow open solutions to increasingly dominate the market and proprietary closed solutions will eventually exhaust up market possibilities.

Roger, can we discuss this thjis proposal through anothjer channel, e-mail, for example?

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