by Lucy Barnes and Rupert Gatti
On 16 May 2019, Knowledge Unlatched announced the beta launch of a new hosting platform for Open Access books, the Open Research Library (ORL). Our books are a prominent part of this nascent project, both on the website and in the marketing associated with the launch, and this, together with Knowledge Unlatched’s claim that they are ‘working with publishers and libraries worldwide’, might give the impression that we are actively participating in and endorsing the platform. However this is not the case: we were not informed or consulted about this project at any stage; we were not told that our books would feature on this platform; and we do not support ORL. In fact we have grave concerns about its approach and business model, and those of Knowledge Unlatched (KU), which we will set out here.
ORL is of course completely free to use our content: our books are openly available to everyone. However, we object to KU’s attempt to position its privately-owned platform as a ‘one-stop hub’ to access open content in an attempt to monopolise access for commercial gain. As OPERAS have said in a statement criticising 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.’ In the process, ORL replicates services that are already openly available elsewhere, provides only a limited version of open content that is more fully available on other platforms, and attempts to cannibalise the revenue streams of the Open Access (OA) publishers whose books they feature – all under the guise of providing a service to libraries and to the OA community as a whole.
ORL’s services: openly available elsewhere
In an interview to promote the launch of ORL, KU Managing Director Sven Fund states that ‘one of the key parameters or goals […] was to not replicate what’s already there, not to build another layer of something that already exists.’ Unfortunately, this is what ORL does. The Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB), Open Access Publishing in European Networks (OAPEN), OpenEdition, unglue.it, and Project Muse, among others, all host open content from multiple publishers, increasing its discoverability and allowing libraries to easily integrate it into their catalogues. This is contrary to the implications of the slightly peculiar press release for ORL, which suggests that OA books are currently ‘offered for use by scientists on numerous different publishing and distribution websites’. At the time of writing, the content on ORL is available via OAPEN and the DOAB.
It would also be disingenuous for KU to claim that it was unaware of these projects – KU is itself a partner of OPERAS, a diverse collaboration of 40 organisations involved in OA book publishing and service provision across 16 European countries, and including DOAB, OAPEN, OpenEdition and ourselves. In addition, several of these organisations (including OAPEN and OpenEdition) have contracted with KU itself to market their platforms to the same research libraries ORL is targeting. KU is therefore proposing to market multiple (very similar) services to the same constituency – while happening to own one of them!
In addition, ORL is attempting to get libraries to buy into its platform on a three-year contract (‘Basic Membership’ will cost £900 pa and ‘Premium’ will cost £1,800 pa) in return for services such as individualised usage statistics and the provision of MARC records. We (and many other publishers) already offer these services to libraries – and we would be staggered if additional providers do not emerge over the next two or three years. This ‘three-year’ contract is clearly an attempt to lock libraries into their platform and so make it more difficult for competition to emerge – a well-developed commercial strategy by ‘first movers’ in digital markets to try and establish market power early and so be in a position to dominate the market in the future.
Our OA publishing activities, and our ability to operate without imposing book processing charges on authors, depend heavily on the financial support we receive from university libraries through our library membership programme. Providing easy functionality for libraries to integrate our titles into their catalogues is a priority of ours: on our website we provide high-quality MARC records and usage statistics for libraries. Our titles are available in multiple formats, including printed volumes, PDF, epub, mobi, HTML, and XML – and many have additional digital resources available to readers. We are keen for readers to be aware of, and interact with, all these various formats: bringing readers to the homepage of our titles is therefore important to us and valuable to the reader.
Of course, we aren’t unique in any of these desires – which is why we are working collaboratively with other OA publishers and partnerships (including ScholarLed and OPERAS) to create coordinated infrastructures that enable libraries to easily access every publisher’s titles, while maintaining independence in the revenue sources and business models required to sustain our different OA publishing activities. Rather than the aggressively competitive ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach promoted by KU through ORL, we are working to create a system in which the different players work collaboratively, enabling OA publishers (who provide much of the content for ORL) to continue to operate sustainably without imposing charges on authors.
KU has been a member of these communities, and is well aware of our collective objectives and intentions in this regard. So it is particularly revealing that, as a profit-making enterprise that does not actually create its own content, it has decided to go it alone and attempt to monetise the discovery channel for its own commercial gain, in a strategy that duplicates the work already being done by OA publishers and non-profits, and aims to hoover up precious financial support that might otherwise be directed to the content providers. And all this while claiming to have been in consultation with OA publishers involved!
In addition, in contrast to the variety of formats in which we publish our content, ORL provides only the PDF edition, whilst wrongly stating (at the time of writing) that the books are available under a CC BY-NC-ND licence. In fact the vast majority of our books are available under the much less restrictive CC BY licence, which makes reuse easier – as do the HTML and XML editions. ORL does provide the text of a link to each book on our website, as required by the CC licence, but without hyperlinking – an omission that makes it less likely for readers to visit the book on our website (and discover the other editions we make freely available, or indeed purchase a printed copy – which would support further OA publications). In addition, the citation information provided ignores the DOI issued with the work, including instead a non-perpetual URL to the ORL website.
Knowledge Unlatched: a bad actor in the OA community
Beyond the quality of the service ORL provides, the philosophy behind its approach is deeply concerning. The open availability of content is a radical step in making knowledge freely available, but it is only a first step. If for-profit companies create closed, monopolistic systems for its dissemination, they are effectively rent-seeking at the expense of everyone whose money, expertise and time goes into creating open content: taxpayers, funding bodies, authors, OA publishers, libraries and more. As Geoffrey Bilder, Jennifer Lin, and Cameron Neylon put it ‘[e]verything we have gained by opening content and data will be under threat if we allow the enclosure of scholarly infrastructures’.
This is not the first time KU have launched a service that appears to seek to monopolise the provision of OA content, and we have objected to this behaviour before. KU is not an organisation that works generously with other OA projects – indeed its aggressive approach, exemplified in the creation of ORL, actively damages these organisations and impoverishes the wider OA community, as we have laid out above. It claims to ‘[contribute] to the further development of the Open Access (OA) infrastructure’ but it does not make this infrastructure available Open Source for others to use. It ceased to be a Community Interest Company in 2016, but it has been very opaque about its transition into a for-profit entity and persists in using old endorsements from figures in the OA community, despite those people requesting that it stops doing so. This evasive and unethical behaviour is also reflected in its vague claim to be working ‘with publishers’ while launching ORL without having informed at least two of the main content providers (ourselves and Springer Nature) of its planned use of their books, and in KU’s response to the widespread criticism it has received in recent days: issuing invitations to a webinar, rather than engaging openly on a public platform.
At OBP, we believe in an OA ecosystem that is community-owned, community-managed, transparent and sustainable, that is Open Source and that enables an equitable and diverse scholarly commons. As part of ScholarLed, a consortium of six academic-led, not-for-profit OA book publishers, we are actively collaborating with a number of organisations globally to create sustainable, open, and community-managed infrastructure to support the production and dissemination of OA monographs. We will continue to call out the behaviour of players who aggressively seek to monopolise access to OA content for commercial gain.
Finally, we ask libraries to think carefully before they
give funds to ORL, and certainly to resist attempts to lock them in to lengthy
contracts with such providers. Be mindful of the existence of alternatives,
such as the DOAB, and don’t be fooled by the slick branding of profit-making
organisations that claim to serve the OA and the library communities, but instead
seek to take advantage of both.
 We’re not sure how many of the folks at DOAB, OAPEN, Muse etc would describe themselves as scientists, but none of us at OBP can lay claim to that title…
 We currently charge £300 for an annual membership, for which libraries receive free digital editions of our books (epub and mobi) and discounts on our printed editions, in addition to MARC records, usage statistics and other benefits.
 Created for us very kindly by the wonderful people at St Andrew’s University Library.