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How to keep publishing tech from “Locking-in” academics

Scholarly publishing has recently been beset by fears that large publishing companies are creating end-to-end publishing platforms that would unfairly create dependence and entrench monopolies, by providing services to academics which become the standard. Smaller publishers unable to afford the kinds of acquisition of the behemoths will simply be powerless to compete with the ease and efficiency of, say, the submission system for both academics and publishers. As more of the market is captured by the large publishers, they then get more power over the terms of contracts, prices, etc.

The presence of different-sized competitors in a marketplace always raises concerns about the sustainability of the smaller players. After all, their bigger counterparts have more resources to pour into R&D to create more efficient tech and processes, thus giving them more of a market advantage, helping them get even bigger. In cycles which can be considered virtuous or vicious, depending on your standpoint, bigger organizations always threaten the tenability of the smaller ones. The reason we can’t just resign ourselves to this dynamic is that the monopolization of the field by a smaller and smaller number of competitors allows the survivors to dominate the field, allowing them to effectively unilaterally fix the terms of contracts everyone else is forced to abide by.

The usual response to domination by large publishers is to advocate for open science, but Open Access can’t really help here because OA publishers need to be competitive as much as anyone else. If the most effective tools are found exclusively in journals by large for-profit publishers, then even researchers who might otherwise be sympathetic to OA initiatives might opt to publish elsewhere.

But unlike the standard case of “Big Deal” packaging by large publishers, there is one crucial difference in the case of workflow management solutions — competition is possible. Unlike access to journal articles which publishers control, there are plenty of tech companies already dedicated to producing solutions for publishers. Instead of naively hoping that large publishers abstain from engaging in an arms race over tech, we can slightly less naively hope to maintain best-practice guidelines that tech companies are required to abide by. These could include:

  1. Keeping your entire system as modular as possible, so the system architecture can’t by itself straitjacket libraries into an all-or-nothing choice.
  2. Proprietary file formats are kept to a minimum to allow hassle-free disengagement from the system if required.
  3. Different bands of pricing options to ensure small and medium-sized publishers can access atleast a bare bones system.

Why would publishing tech agree to this instead? For one, and most idealistically, most people in publishing tech are themselves invested in the health of academia. But for the few who might need a little motivation, the scholarly community at large in the age of social media can make clear what tech it will be willing to work with. Soft pressure and shaming, especially in the age of social media might just be enough for such an ambitious endeavour.

Of course, we can’t be sure such a tactic would even be feasible or effective, particularly given that larger publishers can simply acquire tech companies. But given where we are today, ensuring that publishing tech is willing to help resist publishing monopolies might very well be our best shot at keeping the marketplace competitive. This isn’t going to make resource and size disparities disappear, but it just might ensure that everyone plays by the same rules.

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