This post is written by Sarah Lamdan (CUNY Law), Jennie Rose Halperin (Library Futures), Shea Swauger (UC Denver), and Rob Montoya (UCLA), core members of IOI's Community Oversight Council. For more information on the council, visit our governance page.
In a single day this month, we learned about two corporate acquisitions involving library services products: Clarivate, a major academic metrics company, bought ProQuest in spite of protests and FTC filings from librarians and advocacy groups, and Wiley bought Knowledge Unlatched, a crowdfunded open access provider.
We wish we could say that these types of corporate consolidations were unusual for the information services industry, but we can’t. Clarivate-ProQuest and Wiley-KU follow in a long line of library vendors that have merged or consolidated, particularly in recent years. Librarians and researchers have watched dozens of academic journal publishers dwindle to a small, powerful publishing oligopoly that controls the research market. We’ve also seen our library services management products—including catalogs, digital lending services, and collection development management tools—get consumed, piece-by-piece, by ProQuest, the same library platform monopolist that Clarivate purchased in a $5.3 billion deal. Library workers are well aware of the shrinking options that librarians have under the growing control of just a few companies.
In theory, consolidating resources and products can be useful—if done conscientiously and ethically, mergers and collaborations can create easier, more streamlined access to resources and lower consumer costs. But consolidation that focuses more on profits and less on making research better hurts libraries and the public. For the most part, this consolidation has only been good for companies’ profit margins. Librarians have watched prices rise and negotiation power dwindle as companies flex their increased power. From charging exorbitant fees for information access to depriving consumers from the information they need, these consolidating companies hurt researchers and libraries.
Last month, several open access-focused groups separately filed reports with the Federal Trade Commission to explain their concerns about the consolidation of research platforms. Their reports listed consumer harms that consolidated research company giants like RELX (Elsevier and LexisNexis) and Clarivate-ProQuest cause, and how their behavior, which could be called monopolistic, harms the entire research enterprise.
But recent deals like the Clarivate-ProQuest acquisition raise new concerns about privacy as well. More and more, companies are using libraries as personal data conduits, selling researchers’ data to third parties. While it would be nice if Clarivate was buying ProQuest to improve library services and support patrons, many of whom are at risk or marginalized, Clarivate's actual motive is clear. Clarivate wants to get ProQuest's data about library users because it’s invaluable to brokers and data analytics firms, which include the companies that make “academic metrics” that predict which research, and which researchers, will be the best bets for grant funders and institutions to support. The companies also surveil library users for other reasons. One researcher even found that RELX/Elsevier’s Science Direct Platform contains ThreatMetrics, policing spyware, tracking researchers as they use the service. With few research platform alternatives, people have little choice but to accept this kind of surveillance as a price of doing research.
This means that companies like RELX and Clarivate aren’t traditional library services providers and information publishers—they’re data analytics companies. In the research space, these analytics companies are particularly insidious.
While the amount of harm these data analytics companies will cause in research institutions is still unknown, analytics and predictions are notoriously biased and invasive in every sector, leading to discriminatory surveillance, arrests, and biased decisions about who can and cannot participate in the market, and the marketplace of ideas. This blog post explains, in great depth, how these data analytics/consolidation privacy problems play out.
Both Clarivate-ProQuest and Wiley-KU are examples of companies that have taken advantage of libraries and other institutions that have outsourced their core functionality to corporations instead of investing in collaborative infrastructure. Companies take advantage of public resources, privatizing them in walled garden platforms and exploiting the data their users create.
We need to find ways to have proactive dialogs with projects and organizations involved in open access and open research efforts about their options to exit to community. Instead of adding to the long line of corporate consolidation, companies can consult with community stakeholders about alternative options that would keep open resources truly open, and in the public purview. We believe that projects and services serving the open landscape need to be responsive to the research practitioners and knowledge communities they serve, rather than orienting their work solely around profit margins.
Join us in February as we work to outline the next phase of this work, and map steps we can take as a community to call for broader transparency, accountability, and public consultation periods prior to a sale to explore community-owned models.