With commercial forces increasingly consolidating control of scholarly research and knowledge production services, there is growing momentum behind an effort to offer a more community-aligned alternative.
Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI) has brought together a variety of partners and funders to promote a community-governed system of infrastructure that can advance the health of the sector. SPARC was an early supporter of the non-profit initiative, working to catalyze its launch in the fall of 2019. The initiative has steadily developed into a growing global coalition.
“We’re delighted to see this project come to fruition,” says Heather Joseph, SPARC’s executive director. “It’s vital that the academic and research community have high-quality, financially sustainable open infrastructure options that can compete with traditional commercial offerings in order to have a healthy knowledge sharing ecosystem.”
In June, IOI was awarded a three-year, $3.47 million grant from Arcadia, a UK-based charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. The infusion of money, to add to a mix of funding from other philanthropies, will allow the project to hire a team to further scholarship on open infrastructure and develop tools to help decision makers assess and build open, sustainable models for information sharing.
“IOI has had lots of funding from different stakeholders—libraries and various private philanthropies—and Arcadia wanted to take that to the next level of impact,” says Ross Mounce, director of open access programmes at Arcadia. “There’s a big problem out there. Everyone knows what they need to do: They need to unsubscribe and reallocate funding. But it’s difficult and you need specialist tools to justify reallocating library budgets and funder budgets. Hopefully, IOI can help people make those important decisions about where the money goes.”
With the Arcadia funding, an expanded IOI team will be working alongside community members, funders, institutions, and infrastructure providers to examine these issues in more depth to galvanize change, says IOI inaugural Executive Director Kaitlin Thaney.
“The current system for scholarly research and knowledge production is really geared towards commoditization. It’s cost prohibitive and it’s skewed towards profit generation,” says Thaney. “That privileges the well-resourced. It devalues and underserves the global scholarly research community and further perpetuates a system that rewards prestige and exclusion. That is not the mission of many of these institutions, and it should not be the core thesis of higher education.”
To counter these trends, more support is needed to help key decision makers build their own open systems, says Thaney: “Equitable and accessible participation in knowledge production and dissemination requires that the infrastructure is similarly designed, and anchored in community values.”
For years, business decisions around data use have been driven by efficiency and technology. Decisions are easily swayed by commercial vendors that appear to offer stability and continuity, but don’t always best serve communities at their core. “There is an urgency to this work and need for a broader ecosystem,” says Thaney. “I don’t fault institutions for choosing non-open technologies. I do think that there is a need for additional guidance and strategic support, so that we can start to think through how to shift this dynamic.”
Thaney has spent much of her career advising, advocating and designing for open access to content, data, research and code. She worked at Creative Commons, Wikimedia, and Mozilla before spearheading IOI. While launching a new organization in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge, Thaney has been able to secure support from a mix of institutions, organizations and individuals.
It’s important for the academic community to have an infrastructure it can trust rather than rely on commercial entities that use information for their own private gain, says Leslie Chan, associate professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough and member of the IOI Steering Committee.
“More and more infrastructure is controlled by these firms that are interested in getting as much money as fast as possible,” says Chan. “The consequence is that they are very exclusionary and those who can afford to pay can be better off. This is a huge equity issue at the heart that favors a certain kind of knowledge production.”
Chan says he endorses IOI’s work because it is raising awareness and dedicated to getting solid research about data usage and business models needed for people committed to building open systems.
Coordinating efforts around investment in open systems is vital, says Arianna Becerril García, founder of AmeliCA, a cooperative open science non-profit in Latin America. “Open science needs to be an object of study so we can reflect on how it is evolving and shape its future,” says Becerril, who believes the success of the open publishing landscape in Latin America could be a model for others. “IOI has done a great job working with different organizations to get us all together to exchange information.”
The project started with a group of dedicated volunteers with good intentions and now the Arcadia grant will help it truly have an impact. “This will make the dreams and discussions we’ve had for two years become a reality. We now finally have a clear way to start operating,” says Becerril. “Commercial companies are acquiring solutions that originally were proposed as non-commercial, open solutions. That really compromises the future of the open landscape. IOI conducting research on open infrastructure could really make a difference and keep it alive.”
This past year, IOI engaged with individuals in over 75 organizations to explore interventions to move collectively forward with open infrastructure. Thaney worked to provide cost-benefit analysis and identify possible paths to leverage existing frameworks. The final report on the “Future of Open Scholarship Project,” complete with recommendations and additional resources, will appear on the IOI website. The hope is to provide guidance on where best to direct funds that could be used to build open systems that maximize impact, resilience, and support diversity of knowledge production.
“If we do not approach this work thoughtfully and take responsibility, we risk further locking in a system that excludes,” Thaney says.
Along with SPARC, other supporters of IOI include: the Code for Science & Society, Schmidt Futures, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Wellcome Trust, Stanford University, North Carolina State University, Center for Research Libraries, University at Buffalo, Iowa State University, Indiana University-Bloomington, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Next Generation Library Publishing Project, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the Libraries of the Big Ten Academic Alliance.