Matthew Ismail Interviews Sven Fund, Managing Director fullstopp, Knowledge Unlatched – Part 2

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Matthew Ismail: What is driving the open access movement in Europe and how did you decide that is where you’re going to move?

Sven Fund: I think funders have been the most important drivers, not researchers, at least not in the humanities and social sciences at large. To me, that is the  reason why open access is more successful in STM than in HSS — there is simply more money in the system. And that has an impact also on the author side — who cares about $1,500 if they work for a pharmaceutical company? But if you are a professor of history at a Midwestern college that money might be an issue for you. So, I think that funders have been really driving that development.

Matthew Ismail: Okay, so the Wellcome Trust and Max Planck Society and these institutions are driving this issue to a large degree, and that’s become much more matter-of-fact and there’s not so much stridency about the issue?

Sven Fund: It is not that easy. We are at an interesting point, as I don’t know any publisher that doesn’t have an open access policy.  But I still know some libraries that don’t have an active open access policy. I had a conversation in a German library a few weeks ago with a group of librarians where I said, you know, “You guys are now in charge to make sure that what you are asking for really works at a large-scale and not just for five articles and seven books.” And I am not finger-pointing. I’m not happy if it doesn’t work. I’m just saying that librarians have to build open access into their regular acquisition structures and schemes. They can’t treat it as a special purchase with the director’s budget for all small and fancy things.

There’s a certain element of unhappiness among large academic libraries in Germany, for example, that feel they are always funding the lion’s share of open access and think small institutions should also participate. That’s one of the reasons why we introduced differential pricing at Knowledge Unlatched. We want to assure that smaller institutions can join and not have the argument, “We don’t have the budget.” Of course, their resources are limited. It might be much easier for large universities like MIT or Harvard to spend $11,000 on an OA model. But now, even a Midwestern college can spend $5,000 or $3,000 and by that participate in Knowledge Unlatched. I think other initiatives are doing comparable and equally important things.

Matthew Ismail: Do you find that fullstopp is also engaged in the field of OA as an intermediary, trying to help libraries understand these differences?

Sven Fund: No, we are right now engaged in something, which I found very surprising, which is negotiation skills. So, really helping libraries, first of all, try to understand why publishers do what they do and that they’re not all idiots—there is a rationality to how they do things. I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong. So we’re helping there and that is an interesting field because there’s almost a kind of speechlessness between libraries and publishers because they know so little emotionally, if you will, about the world of the other. So, how many librarians remember in a negotiation situation that the publishing guy on the other side of the table is getting his or her bonus based on today’s conversation?

Sven Fund

Matthew Ismail: So, what would you regard then as the most dynamic forces in publishing in Germany today and in Europe for that matter?

Sven Fund: That’s a tough one. I think it’s really the shift away from the dominance of content to the importance of service. I think all large publishers globally struggle with the situation where they command huge containers of content and there’s a lot of content generation going on in their journals, books, databases. But they feel that it’s being devalued by the fact that it is not just a volume game anymore. Suddenly it’s about usage analytics. So people such as librarians now realize, “Gee, I’m buying a lot of stuff that nobody really uses and I know exactly which stuff that is. I always had that suspicion, but now I exactly know what to switch on or off, because I can utilize alternate business models like patron driven acquisitions, for example.”

I try to call it the difference between digitization and digitalitality, in which digitization is when the content is being born in print and you’re transforming it from print to digital and ideally you sell it another time. These great journal archives were like pots of gold for publishers. They worked very well and I think they were good for libraries as well, who didn’t have to build new library buildings. So there were good reasons to produce and purchase them. But in an environment of digitality—of born-digital content–business models are suddenly completely different. Libraries don’t just buy content anymore just in case somebody might need it 30 years from now, they buy it just-in-time. That is very different and it changes the whole calculation for publishing houses and the whole setup of the relationship between publishers and libraries.

Matthew Ismail: What would you say is going to happen to publishers who can no longer rely on selling a certain volume of content to libraries and who are trying to make that up by selling tools?

Sven Fund: I would say businesswise anyways for the large publishers the benefits that they had over the last three or four decades in adding more content and exercising economies of scale towards their vendors in production ends-on–but also the economies of scale process–is coming to an end. But even very small publishers with €5 million in revenues don’t have that much of a higher production cost component in their P&L right now than the big publishers do.

Publishers will have to be creative and find ways to better understand what, first of all, their researchers want–not so much the library. I think that we have almost forgotten about the researcher in the age of the “big deal”. But it seems we’re seeing more of a trend towards involving researchers into the processes and offering services to them.

So, I’m a strong believer that there will be a development of academic self-publishing. As a researcher, you clearly need top brands for some of your publications but not for all of them. So, if you prepare, for example, a conference volume, you probably don’t need an established publisher because who is on the board of the conference matters much more than whether it says “published by XY and Z” on the bottom of the cover page. I would imagine that we will see much more fragmentation going on there and that the trend of large publishers who re-consolidate into one offer will simply come to an end because it doesn’t create economic value anymore. You can’t do analytics in a good way just for your own portfolio. It doesn’t help. You have to have the market perspective on the whole landscape and I think there again publishers like Elsevier, also Springer, have understood that a while ago and acted accordingly.

Matthew Ismail: Yes.  It’s interesting because when libraries acquired many “big deals”, thinking about the end-user wasn’t the same since users have access to so much. Librarians just assumed that we were covering almost everything and we would then just have to buy the exceptions. But with those “big deals” becoming less prevalent, at least in some places, it’s going to be more and more important for publishers to sell individual journals and books and libraries are much more reluctant to do that than they were in the past.

Sven Fund: Isn’t it interesting in the library world that all the fans of the “big deal” are always those people who have a lot of money? So, obviously the proponents of the “big deal” are not those people at small institutions. It’s those large institutions with a lot of specialties next to each other who really need a “big deal” because you have all these very “nichey” titles. It’s basically those people who say, you know, “ It makes my life much easier as a librarian because I can acquire a lot of content.” I take that argument, but at the same time is it really important to make their lives easier or is it important to make research better? And I think again that’s one of the differences between digitization and digitalitality.

I think if you have to buy a “big deal” because there are simply no other ways to acquire that breadth of content for your researchers and to cover the “just-in-case” usage all the time, that is completely understandable. But I think there are now tools and technology to purchase much more specific content and not to have a kind of cross-financing on a very high level but really go into depth and also compare certain things. So, at De Gruyter we always evaluated by the situation. I find it simply unfair that we have specific journals on Egyptology or Medieval Studies in Southwestern Germany and they would be compared in their usage to Nature and Science. It obviously doesn’t make any sense to do that.

So, now we can start a long conversation around the metrics, whether they are helpful, overvalued or not. Doesn’t it make sense to find another way of purchasing instead of by measuring? I think measuring just got important because it is a surrogate for a price, right? And I think what’s really important in the future is just to pay for what you want and not to buy the whole department store just in case you need a new pair of socks next week. You just buy the pair of socks when you need them, right?

Matthew Ismail: I think most librarians don’t understand the extent to which these changes have provided challenges for publishers because their business grew in that era in which we bought the whole department store just in case somebody needed some socks. So for the publishers–I would assume they’re going to shrink.

Sven Fund: Absolutely. But sometimes I’m surprised. I just had a conversation with somebody about the new Sci-Hub usage statistics. I don’t know whether you saw in Science magazine concerning the coverage of the different publisher portfolios or journals on Sci-Hub? It seems that everybody is in there as you can see it’s basically, whatever, 98% of Elsevier, 93% of Springer, and so on and so on. So, it’s up there, and it’s open access, unfortunately. Somebody did some great analysis on that. Now people are surprised. I don’t know why people are surprised because everybody, librarians and publishers, could have measured that. I mean you can check the system. You know about it when somebody mass downloads all of the journals from Elsevier. You can know it the next minute, if you want.

Matthew Ismail: So you were just talking about self-publishing. To a degree I would say that self-publishing among users, among researchers and so on, would pick up some of the publishing that is no longer possible or sufficiently profitable for publishers. Maybe De Gruyter can no longer afford to publish a journal in Egyptology? Is it possible that some sort of self-publishing platform and business would be more affordable for the researchers in Egyptology?

Sven Fund: I would probably not even see it as a threat to publishers. There is so much gray literature out there which has always been published. We did an analysis of one consulting customer in Germany, and a midsize university in Germany has on average–the ones that we analyzed which was just a set of it–they have on average about 30 book series within their different departments, which are not with a publisher. So there is all that content out there, such as dissertations, conference proceedings volumes, Festschriften, all these kinds of things, and I think it will probably shift and become more visible. It will in that respect be more competitive with publishers, because publishers really have to prove what they do to make content visible, usable, discoverable and so on.

I think it can be incredibly helpful for publishers to get rid of some stuff they are doing right now and just send authors along the way to self-publishers and say, you know, “They will take care of it. No reason to worry. And somebody will publish it, just not us.” That will probably also help and will probably also give publishers a new approach to quality in their portfolio which is a major discussion that we will have in publishing — but nobody is having right now. So many publishers have expanded their lists artificially over the last few years and everybody knows it. Every librarian knows it and every publisher knows it, but nobody does anything against it because the “big deal” is so convenient that there is simply no way to get around that convenience.

Matthew Ismail: So, presumably the publishers are going to shrink. They’re going to reduce the number of journals and books and so on that they’re publishing because demand is going to be less.

Sven Fund: That’s probably true.

Matthew Ismail: We buy a third as many books, for example, as we used to at my institution.

Sven Fund: Yeah, and I think books are much less of a problem because books have never carried a publisher’s profitability. If you would cut most of the book portfolios in publishing houses, you probably only cut losses. That is not so much of a problem. The question really is whether books still serve academia and that is something we need to look at.

Regarding journals, I’m looking at the political targets set by the European Union and many other players. I know of valuations of pure play open access publishers which are higher than the valuation of the market leader by now. In my experience, whenever an investor approaches us for consulting help and they want to buy a journal portfolio, their first question is about open access. Is this a threat to our investment or is this something that we will recoup in a foreseeable number of years?

It is quite possible that publishers might shrink and I think there would be a kind of restructuring along completely different lines than there’ve been so far. So, look at companies like Wiley or Elsevier that are very strong in fields like chemistry. They are already developing completely different tools, software, applications, which they want to integrate with their traditional content. Maybe it’s more important for them to have a group of library and information science journals. I would assume so. So the question is, is the big deal horizontal or vertical? And I think that will be an interesting journey to observe, how corporate strategy makers decide on that over the next years.

Matthew Ismail: So, you think that publishers are going to accept the need to downsize their offerings ?

Sven Fund: I think it is not a question of choosing to accept it but rather of economic survival. If you look at the latest financial reports of companies, those that are publicly listed, and if you normalize the currency effects from last year, you will see that most of them are not growing organically any more. Most of them are just sitting there and they’re probably generating profit growth by cutting costs, but that’s about it. And I think there is simply no business that can survive long-term just by cutting costs. So, yes, I think publishers will react to that.

Matthew Ismail: So, the loss of journals through publishers doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve lost outlets for researchers to publish.

Sven Fund: No, and I think if you look at the number of journals out there, particularly since open access came up, it seems there are way too many of them. I guess you could call it double dipping on a higher level. So, for every subscription journal you have an open access journal and people think that’s fine. I don’t think that’s fine from a researcher’s perspective. You have to monitor many more outlets for research results. I’m doubting that this makes sense, and despite their apparent disadvantages, I was always in favor of hybrid business models for open access. I thought it better for the researcher to basically have it all in one place, in one context, and also in one economic unit.

Matthew Ismail: But for the researcher discovery becomes quite an issue when all of this content–even if there’s less content coming from the publishers there’s still tons of content. What sort of discovery platforms do you think are coming that will allow people to have one point of access to many sorts of information?

Sven Fund: Well, I think what’s interesting is if you look for discovery around  open access content and discoverability of the legitimate open access versions of an article, services like Unpaywall as extensions to browsers are the future. I would assume that this might be controversial in a library magazine, but I think that the library catalog is losing value every day. If you come from a country like I do where cataloging is the crown jewel of librarianship, concentrating not on the user but on the catalog, I am aware how significant that statement is. I would assume that researchers will not accept the lack of a seamlessly integrated system in something like Google. So, I would assume that search and discovery has to become much easier through the everyday platforms that everybody uses, otherwise it will fail.

If you see that about 75% of all usage of publisher content comes through Google and other open platforms, we now know that it is the reality that very few people still use the catalog other than librarians. I mean there are simply not so many people working with these rather complicated tools from the last century. That doesn’t mean that you don’t need it, I’m sure librarians need it for their systematic work, but I think as a discovery tool it’s really about completely different systems.

Publishers have to actually work much harder to help not only with discovery, but also the question of how to display usage. We know that there’s this CrossRef initiative around distributed usage logging. I think those initiatives are really important, because without them, publishers will always be hesitant to distribute content among different platforms.

Matthew Ismail: Right.

Sven Fund: And I think that is a reality. We see this at Knowledge Unlatched so we deposit our content with OAPEN and with HathiTrust. Then it’s on publishers’ platforms where it’s open access. There are many people who take KU content on the Internet archive or elsewhere to just make sure that it is in a safe place, and that is all fine, because that is what open access is all about. But if the same people then ask us, “So, can you please give us the institution specific user stats?”, things are getting difficult. Statistics would assume that I need a kind of master consolidation of all user stats and that is simply not present. So we are trying to help ourselves with Google analytics data and say, “This is the usage at Washington University in St. Louis plus the one in the greater area, and you now need to decide whether you want to account for that in your evaluation.

Matthew Ismail: Google is private property, right? So Google Scholar is not something we can count on Google continuing to support. Do you think there’s a likelihood of some sort of non-profit utility more like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Meta which is being made open? Is there something like that coming perhaps from the EU?

Sven Fund: I don’t think so. I think in the political discussion as I have seen it so far the issue of discoverability is underrated and I think they don’t pay too much attention to that. It seems that for policymakers the idea of opening up content means only providing something to read, to work with, and not so much the question of whether it can be discovered. Also, in conversations publishers are having with researchers, they often hear, “I just put it on the Internet so it is out there.” I think publishers have to really invest more time and resources explaining to researchers what they do. They do a lot to make content discoverable and this service is simply not being seen by the people who pay for it.

Matthew Ismail: You mentioned Sci-Hub earlier. That’s a discovery tool that’s very popular with many people because it’s one platform that has so much content. It may all be pirated, but it’s a platform that draws people precisely because it offers that single point of access and I think there is much to be learned from that. Publishers are still developing search platforms on their own websites, which I think is a disastrous idea.

Sven Fund: Well, it seems the issue behind that is that many publishers still think it is all about control and “their” stuff. I find it difficult to sustain that thinking in this environment. So, yeah, I mean it has been addressed with distributed usage logins and these kinds of initiatives, but I think we are by far not where we have to be to really make this a sufficient way. Either that or librarians have to completely abolish the idea of measuring impact by usage. I don’t see that happening because not only librarians but also deans and provosts have been trained so well on those metrics by now that it would be difficult to train them on something else.

Matthew Ismail: Yeah, and I think funders as well are also trying to measure impact. To me the whole question about discoverability, the question about open access, the relation then to publishers or librarians who have a much more local idea about what discovery should be–I would think the technology is already present for a discovery tool that need not be local, something that could be attached to huge amounts of content. The question then would simply be who controls what and who pays for it. But that seems to me very likely to be a project that will be coming because, as you say, you can make everything open but if no one can find it or if it’s not discoverable in a sufficiently convenient way usage will not really grow.

Sven Fund: Absolutely. I was really fascinated to see that there has been a lot of conversations around Blockchain technology in publishing.

Matthew Ismail: What’s that?

Sven Fund: Blockchain technology is what is being used for Bitcoin and these crypto applications which basically wraps an identifier around the content. It can secure a large number of end-to-end communication. So, let’s assume you can really secure end-to-end our recorded conversation and every change that is being made before and after publishing–who has looked at it, who has copied which paragraph, all these kinds of information—they are being tracked with the article. I can imagine that could really be a solution to a number of issues in publishing, particularly to things like data publishing. Everybody talks about data publishing, but I don’t see a business model yet. Do you put an Excel list online, an XML online with all kinds of weather data? Or isn’t there a better way to do that by saying I can wrap every Excel cell and let’s say every change being done will be recorded in a log file. And this information stays with the document and based on the usage, based on the changes, based probably on the impact, there would then be a pricing.

So, I think that could be one disruptive technology. It would be interesting for libraries to see also beyond what the library acquires what these users use every day. So how much open content, not only open access content, but how often do patrons read the Financial Times or the New York Times online every day? That could be interesting, because I think it would show librarians what publishers already know about their books. I think that the digital version of a book has fragmented usage scenarios so much, from people who read the whole book to people who just pick a quote or who just go through the table of contents or the references. If you suddenly find out that 30% of the activity in your library could happen anyplace, it has nothing to do with the library, that offers a lot of potential.

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