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.
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.
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.