Sustaining the Knowledge Commons: final report

This post concludes the 7-year Sustaining the Knowledge Commons (SKC) research program for which I gratefully acknowledge generous support from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) through an Insight Development Grant (2014 – 2016), and Insight Grant (2016 – 2021). I also gratefully acknowledge the hard work, team spirit and initiative of the many members of the SKC team over the years – their names are listed on the About the Team page; bios reflect statuses the last time they participated in the project. Following are my key recommendations for funders (including libraries & policy-makers), takeways for future APC researchers, select portions of my final report to SSHRC, and my final thoughts and next directions.

Key recommendations for funders (including libraries & policy-makers):

  • Recommendation #1: Support small scholar-led publishers (e.g. journals and books published by or at universities and scholarly associations) to transition to open access because this sector can thrive with modest support (best economic choice) and is the sector in the best position to prioritize the values of academia over profit and achieve global equity in inclusion of scholars around the world in a global knowledge commons.
  • Recommendation #2: Support existing and emerging open access scholarly publishers reliant on open access article process charges (APCs) with caution and back-up built into policy. There are 2 main reasons for caution: there are already a large number of journals and publishers that are “no longer in DOAJ”, many of which are still publishing. While current APC publishers such as the Public Library of Science have earned top reputations for publishing quality scholarship, it is clear that the APC model has also opened a door to a for-profit sector with less than clear commitment to scholarly quality. The second reason for caution is evidence of price rises beyond inflation among commercial and professional not-for-profit APC based publishers. It is not clear that the economics of this model are sustainable. To put a back-up plan into policy, require that researchers deposit work in an open access repository. Meeting OA policy through open access publishing alone makes works available open access today with no guarantee for the future.
  • Recommendation #3: Look beyond traditional print-based formats such as journals and books. The open research SKC blog, featuring immediate release of the results of over 200 small research projects to inform decision-making in real time, and the OA APC dataverse, are illustrations of what we can do. Innovation should be a priority, not an afterthought.
  • Recommendation #4: Make global equity and inclusion a top priority in setting policy, including deciding which initiatives to support financially. The key question is: will this policy or initiative tend to facilitate a global knowledge commons that gives voice to all qualified researchers around the world, or will it further entrench existing interests?

Takeaways for future APC researchers:

  • The Sustaining the Knowledge Commons blog features a rich set of small research projects, many on individual APC-charging publishers, that are not available anywhere else. The blog will remain as is for some time and will be archived with the assistance of the University of Ottawa Library before it is decommissioned.
  • The most complete dataset in the OA APC dataverse is OA Main 2019. This is a unique contribution as journals once included (journal or publisher was once included in DOAJ) are retained from year to year. Data including APC amounts for several years derived from a number of sources is available for close to 20 thousand journals. This dataset is for serious researchers as it takes some time to read the documentation and understand the datapoints; misinterpretation would be easy given that the data is derived from multiple sources.
  • The dataset in the OA APC dataverse that includes journals for which we have data for the longest period of time is the 2011 – 2021 dataset. Most of the 2011 dataset in included in OA Main 2019, however in preparing analysis we found that some journals were missing as they had been removed from DOAJ prior to our first sampling (2014).
  • The published open data in the OA APC dataverse reflects a small portion of the data that we have collected and analyzed over the years. The reason for not publishing all of the data as open data is the complexity and extra work required to create publishable documentation. If you are looking for historical APC data for research purposes, don’t hesitate to ask what I (Heather Morrison) might have. No guarantees that what you need will match what I have.

Excerpts from the SSHRC Insight Grant final report

Summary: The purpose of the Sustaining the Knowledge Commons project was to conduct research to inform the process of transformation of the underlying economics of scholarly publishing from the demand (purchase / subscription) to the supply side (support for production) to achieve sustainable and globally equitable open access. The resource requirements for small scholar-led publishers project confirmed the modest financial needs of this sector, considered the best option to prioritize academic quality over profit. A longitudinal study of article processing charges (APCs) found that this model, working well in some sectors, nevertheless poses some challenges to academic quality as illustrated by a large number of APC-based journals and publishers in the category “no longer in the Directory of Open Access Journals”. The APC commercial and professional not-for-profit market is showing problematic signs of a tendency to increases prices beyond inflation, another reason to consider alternatives. One approach to analyzing open access policy and initiatives, based on Ostrom’s work Governing the Commons, was identified as useful to analyze policy and initiatives from the perspective of global equity (inclusion of all qualified scholars to contribute to our common knowledge). A key conclusion and recommendation is that the optimal way to achieve sustainable and equitable high quality academic publishing for traditional publication forms such as journals and books, prioritizing academic values over profit, is to transition economic support to prioritize small scholar-led publication, and in particularly the university sector. The open research approach employed in this project illustrates the benefits of going beyond traditional forms optimized for print. Major findings have been consistently quickly published on the course blog, supporting decision-makers engaged in the process of transition, and open data shared via the dataverse.

Outcomes: Sustaining the knowledge commons (SKC) has provided independent third-party evidence to support the growing non-commercial, scholar-led sector of scholarly publishing. SKC research demonstrates the desirability of supporting this sector from an economic point of view as overall less costly, more equitable, and in a good position to prioritize academic quality over profit. The internet has created an environment in which universities and scholarly societies can, with reasonable ease and modest support, create, sustain and globally disseminate their own publications. For example, in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) as of December 2021, the country with the highest number of open access journals is Indonesia, with 1,896 titles, followed by, in order, the UK (1,885 titles), Brazil (1,636), the U.S. (969), Spain (882), Poland (785), and Iran (662). DOAJ is a far more diverse collection of titles, linguistically and culturally, than is found in typical library packages in countries like Canada. This evidence is useful to policy-makers such as research funders and services that support scholarly publishing such as libraries and library consortia.

Audiences: The primary audiences that can benefit from the research conducted by the Sustaining the Knowledge Commons project are the organizations ultimately responsible for funding the production and dissemination of scholarly works – universities and other research organizations, their libraries and library consortia, research funding agencies, scholarly societies, and individual academic researchers who support scholarly publication through their labour and research funding. Academics, students, and the general public benefit indirectly through open access to scholarly works; for example, when health care practitioners have access to the results of medical research, we all benefit from improved evidence-based practice.

Research products: and are, respectively, a research blog and open dataverse that demonstrate the open research approach employed in the Sustaining the Knowledge Commons project. These are the most comprehensive resources for outputs from this project. The blog features over 200 original research posts, of which most are brief original research pieces written by research assistants and associates under the supervision of the Principle Investigator. Only a small fraction of this output would be found in traditional research formats such as journal articles and books.

The dataverse: The dataverse features open data and documentation from the longitudinal open access APC study that exemplifies the open data approach. The datasets are the most complete source of historical information for many journals and publishers that are no longer active, open access, and/or listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals, and will make it possible for future researchers to conduct robust longitudinal studies in future. OA Main 2019 final is the most complete dataset (close to 20,000 journals, up to 280 data points / journal, range 2011 – 2019). The most recent dataset is 2011_2021_APCs_open_data.

Final thoughts and new directions: finally, I would like to thank all of the readers of this blog and particularly those who took the time to comment, whether on the blog or on the listservs and other projects that I have participated in over the years, particularly the Global Open Access List, Scholcomm, the Radical Open Access list, and the Open Access Tracking Project, and everyone – all the authors, editors, publishers, research funders and activists – who have moved OA forward through its first generation. My perspective is that OA has now moved into a second generation that is quite different from the first and leadership is from the institutions and organizations that provide the support for scholarly publishing – universities & their libraries and library consortia, research funders and scholarly publishers, and is no longer reliant on individual activists like me. This is a good thing, an accomplishment in and of itself and one that bodes well for ongoing transition to full open access. On a personal note, while I remain available should my expertise (or datasets) be needed, it is my intention to shift my research to one or more areas more in need of attention, particularly in the area of information policy.

Cite as: Morrison, H. (2021). Sustaining the knowledge commons: final report. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons Dec. 22, 2021