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What’s the right model for shared scholarly communications infrastructure?

13 April 2013 5 Comments

Dollar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There have been a lot of electrons spilled over the Elsevier Acquisition of Mendeley. I don’t intend to add too much to that discussion but it has provoked for me an interesting train of thought which seems worth thinking through. For what its worth my views of the acquisition are not too dissimilar to those of Jason Hoyt and John Wilbanks, and I recommend their posts. I have no doubt that the Mendeley team remain focussed on their vision and I hope they do well with it. And even with the cash reserves of Elsevier you don’t spend somewhere in the vicinity of $100M on something you intend to break.

But the question is not the intentions of individuals, or even the intentions of the two organisations, but whether the culture and promise of Mendeley can survive, or perhaps even thrive within the culture and organisation of Elsevier. No-one can know whether that will work, we will simply have to wait and see. But that raises a broader question for me. A for-profit startup, particularly one funded by VCs, has a limited number of exit strategies; IPO, sale, or more rarely a gradual move to a revenue positive independent company. This means startups behave in certain ways, and it means that interacting with them, particularly depending on them, has certain risks, primarily that a big competitor could buy your important partner out from under you. It’s not just the community who are wondering what Elsevier will do with the data and community that Mendeley will bring them, its also the other big publishers who were seeing valuable traffic and data coming to them from Mendeley, it’s the whole ecology of organisations that came to rely on the API.

It can be tempting to think that the world would be a better place if this kind of innovation was done by non-profits rather than startups. Non-profits have their strengths, a statutory requirement to focus on mission, the assurance that the promise of a big buy-out won’t change management behaviour. But non-profits have their weaknesses as well. That focus on mission can prevent the pivot that can make a startup.  It can be much harder to raise capital. Where a non-profit is governed by a board made up of a diverse community then conflicts of interest can make decision making glacial.

The third model is that of academic projects, and many useful tools have come from this route, but again there are problems. The peculiar nature of academic projects means that the financial imperatives that characterise the early stages of both for-profits and not-for-profits never really seem to bite. This can lead in turn to a lack of focus on user requirements and from there to a lack of adoption that condemns new tools to the category of interesting, even exciting, but not viable.

Of course all weaknesses are strengths in a different context. The freedom to explore in an academic context can enable exceptional leaps that would never be possible when you are focussed on finding next months rent. The promise of equity can bring in people whose salary you could never afford. The requirement for consensus can be painful but it means that where it can be found it is so much more powerful.

Geoff Bilder at the Rigour and Openness meeting in Oxford last week commented that the board of Crossref was made up of serious commercial competitors who could struggle to reach agreement because of their different interests. The process of building ORCID was painfully and frustratingly slow for many of us because of the different and sometimes conflicting needs of the various stakeholder groups. But when agreement is reached it is so much more powerful because it is clear that there is strong shared need. And agreement is the sign that something really needs to be done.

What has struck me in the conversation of the last week or so is how the interests of a very diverse range of stakeholders; researchers, altmetrics advocates, publishers, both radical and traditional, seem to be coming into alignment. At least on some issues. We need a way to build up shared infrastructure that can be utilised by all of us. Community run not-for-profits seem a good model for that, yet the innovation that builds new elements of infrastructure often comes from commercial startups. A for-profit can raise development capital to support a new tool but this may engender a lack of trust that an academic project might enjoy with a potential userbase.

What our sector lacks, and this might well be a more general problem, is a deep understanding of how these different development and governance models can be combined and applied in different places. We need incubators for non-profits but we also need models where a community non-profit might be setup to buy out a startup. Various publishers have labs groups, and technology will continue to be a key point of competition, but is there a space to do what pharmaceutical companies are increasingly doing and taking some parts of the drug development process pre-competitive so that everyone benefits from a shared infrastructure?

I don’t have any answers, nor do I have experience of running either for-profit or non-profit startups. But it feels like we are at a moment in time where we are starting to see shared infrastructure needs for the whole sector. It isn’t in anyone’s long term interest for us to have to build it more than once – and that means we need to find the right way to both support innovative developments but also ensure that they end up in hands that everyone feels they can trust.


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  • Jan Feringa said:

    Why have retail and wholesale been cooperating for decades in GS1 (former EAN) and UN/EDIFACT and fails the scholarly world in setting up similar organisations?

  • David Baker said:

    This is a great post. I don’t have the answers either but I do have experience building and running a non-profit start-up in the academic space. These things don’t succeed without involvement from all stakeholders (for-profit, non-profit and governments).

    You’ve posed an interesting challenge to the community. I think the next step would be for one or two non-profits to contribute to or co-host a meeting to advance the discussion. To start things off I’m willing to offer space at our 2013 (October/Ottawa) and 2014 (May/London) annual conferences (reconnect.casrai.org) for a session or a workshop to advance this topic in some tangible way.

    Perhaps other non-profits in the space will collaborate and things will grow?

  • Worth Reading This Week » Open@VT said:

    […] model. If it is central to making a profit, fine. But if it can be discarded, it will be. Second, a post by Cameron Neylon takes a different approach by focusing on how nonprofits can take on larger roles- let’s have […]

  • Carl Boettiger said:

    Cameron, great post, I think you hit the nail on the head about the larger issue of sustainable shared infrastructure. I’m curious if you think that trends in open source software can be a guide here or if they are just a red herring. The part about diverse and frequently opposed interests working to realize a common need in ORCID reminded me a lot about Wired’s story on the history of OpenStack: http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2012/04/openstack/ . It is at least an interesting case study of challenges and success in collaborating on infrastructure from start-ups, established industry, and public sector.

  • chris lortie said:

    This reminds me of couchsurfing and their exit strategy. https://www.couchsurfing.org They became a do-no evil corporation but there was significant backlash by the community. The switch was in no small part to server crashes and loss of data etc.