Reflections on “Elsevier Acquires bepress”
Implications for Library Leaders
We are today in the midst of a profound reconfiguration of all sorts of information industries, impacting everything from journalism to entertainment. Libraries and scholarly information providers are not alone. Last week’s news of the bepress acquisition by Elsevier, which I first covered in a business analysis suggesting its strong strategic fit along with some potential risks, took the academic library community by storm. As the dust begins to settle, this is a singular moment for reflections on strategy and leadership among librarians and for academic libraries.
Emotions have run high. The level of strategic investment that an organization makes when selecting core platform infrastructure is great. Just as the publisher community was riled when Wiley bought Atypon, and the library community when ProQuest acquired Ex Libris, bepress represents a similar shift in control and understandable questions about potential forks in product strategy. That it is Elsevier making the acquisition, with its reputation, has only increased anxiety. It is against this context that a library director would write in a public post upon learning of the sale that “this morning was one of the worst days of my professional life and [I am] feeling the effects similar to the death of a close friend.”
The emotional reactions were in part a reflection of the absolute surprise among so many in the academic library community about this deal. I’ve seen many dozens of tweets and received many messages indicating shock upon learning that their partner, their platform provider, could have been acquired. I question no one’s emotions, but it should give us pause that professionals working in our sector can be surprised by acquisitions like this one. More such consolidation should be anticipated.
Elsevier’s strategy has been clear, and it has been talking about its strategy to anyone who will listen. It is one of several major scholarly publishers looking at how to pivot beyond content licensing. Along with SpringerNature sibling Digital Science, Elsevier has been piecing together the components of scholarly workflow services. Acquisitions are a predictable tactic, especially for building communities and networks. When Elsevier purchased SSRN, I asked pointedly, “What other such repositories are privately owned or otherwise available for purchase?” Of course the wave of consolidation we are seeing goes well beyond repositories.
Although Elsevier purchased bepress for a combination of data and analytics along with the opportunities it presents to integrate library-driven open access into its emerging workflow, it is vital to understand that Elsevier sees open access not as a purpose but as an environmental change. The purpose, as Elsevier and bepress understand their work, is to integrate workflows in order to promote the work of scholars and universities in an environment of increasing competition for funding and expertise.
But, if Elsevier’s overall strategy is clear, that of academic libraries is not. Open access is not a strategic objective but rather a tactic towards something else, but looking across the sector that “something else” is unclear or in dispute. For many in the open access community, the purpose is expanding public access to scholarly publications and sources (although recent pushback to this has been interesting to note). To others, the objective is to throttle commercial publishers or otherwise reduce the share of resources devoted to licensing their content (and yet somehow many librarians seem uncertain that Elsevier’s shift in strategy represents a victory). It is rarer to hear a goal that is truly strategic for a library or university, for example, curtailing the outsourcing of core scholarly infrastructure. Whatever the objective should be, the academic library community as a whole has failed to align unambiguously on what it really is trying to accomplish and then to derive strategies that can actually achieve these goals. Indeed, even within a given library, it can be difficult to align unambiguously on strategic directions, with different departments or individuals pursuing different aims.
This lack of alignment around objectives and strategy has now specifically arisen as a challenge for libraries that have licensed bepress as a tool to transform scholarly communications — promoting non-commercial dissemination of scholarly publications. In recent years, the likelihood that bepress would be acquired by a strategic player like Elsevier or Digital Science grew. And yet libraries saying that they wished to transform scholarly communications and reduce the influence of commercial publishers continued to utilize the bepress infrastructure. While there are all manner of good reasons why libraries have chosen Digital Commons, it is also important to be clear about decision-making: no library aiming to reduce commercial publishers’ power could rationally have put its scholcomm eggs in the bepress basket — certainly not in the past year since the Elsevier acquisition of SSRN was announced.
In conjunction with the bepress sale, I have been examining alternatives to bepress’s signature product Digital Commons. As a cloud-based platform that offers repository functions, metadata structures, access interfaces, and cross-institutional aggregation and discovery, among other features, Digital Commons supports not only preprints but journal publishing, special collections, and other resource types. To replace Digital Commons’s full functionality might be impossible, but at a minimum it requires at least two, and possibly more, alternatives. For example, it would require an institutional repository like dspace and a journal publishing engine like OJS, both open source tools that tend to be hosted locally even though cloud-hosted models are available.
Of course, there are issues around providing the technical staffing needed for a local installation (in addition to the librarian staffing necessary to develop and maintain the programs that run on these systems). And licensing fees for Digital Commons have often been lower than the fully loaded staff costs to maintain one’s own platforms, a key reason that Digital Commons grew to be popular, especially outside the largest and most technically well-staffed research libraries. Although I am hearing many librarians trying to frame a fork in the road between local control via open source and local hosting on the one hand and cloud solutions on the other, there is more nuance in this than a binarism.
Instead, the strategic question is about the purpose, not of the repository platform itself but of the library’s scholarly communications or other program directions. Is the purpose to establish a vehicle for open access to preprints? To publish journals? To showcase the work and expertise of the institution? To steadily in-source core scholarly infrastructure? The repository is merely a tool, and the right tool will vary depending on the purpose.
Looking ahead, though, librarians must be prepared to ask a difficult question: Can the repository succeed as a stand-alone system or only as integrated workflow? There is already evidence to suggest that a repository’s success, measured in preprint deposits, comes from its programmatic engagement with researcher workflow. But today, the question is whether gathering, preserving, and making accessible content is a standalone activity, as was once the case, or if it will become integrated as one step in a digital workflow, as Elsevier clearly believes? Digital Commons will gain strength as a repository if Elsevier’s view is right.
We cannot answer this question from within the library alone. Rather, in order to understand the nature of the services that scholars need, we need to understand how their work and the university’s priorities are changing. To think beyond the work and role of the library it is vital that librarians and library leaders take the perspective of the scholars and the university, not that of our own background and training.
In doing so, we must guard against taking a collections perspective. For example, when Ithaka S+R examined the practices and needs of academic chemists several years ago, we found substantial needs for assistance with data management. These chemists were not principally interested in data preservation or data sharing, which is the essence of many library data management initiatives and is essentially collections-centric. Rather, they needed help managing data as it is gathered and in support of its analysis, involving normalization and organization, among other functions. Neil Rambo and colleagues obtained remarkably similar findings in their examination of the needs of the health sciences. Scientists have looked for help in managing their data-gathering workflows rather than in establishing data collections.
Of course every information workflow involves some kind of collection of that information. And many libraries may wish to focus only on the piece of the puzzle that is the collection. Mistake though that may be, as an area of focus it can be understandable. But the repository will not be used, and the collection not created, unless it is integrated into the user workflow.
If this is the case, libraries adopting standalone institutional repositories are moving in exactly the wrong direction strategically. Instead, thinking more in terms of a workflow as are Elsevier and the Open Science Framework (and to some degree Digital Science) may be the strongest strategy. If this is so, then the urgent question facing institutional repository managers and strategists is how quickly and thoroughly they can integrate into one (or more) such workflows. And, while such integration may not require the kind of platform-first multi-tenant approach to repositories that Digital Commons and OSF Preprints each seems to have developed, it seems like a strong design approach.
Strategic surprise such as the type faced by many libraries and librarians last week is jarring. The solution is not simply to double down on local installations of repository software if the future lies in workflow.
A transition to supporting workflow would almost certainly mean accepting that scholarly infrastructure will be further outsourced. Are academic libraries, and the academic community broadly, comfortable with this ongoing outsourcing? What sorts of protections should be provided? Libraries should be at the forefront of helping their universities develop principles to manage the outsourcing of scholarly infrastructure. These principles should be instantiated into model licenses, privacy principles, data ownership policies, and so forth.
Stepping back yet further, it is important to reflect on leadership in the face of strategic surprise. My assessment of our dynamics today suggests a need for library leadership improvements in several areas:
- Developing greater ongoing situational awareness about the strategic directions of vendors and sector competitors, which involves the ability to scan the overall environment dispassionately, review the competitive landscape objectively, and assess the strategic directions of vendors and competitors generously (not skeptically);
- Examining how research, instruction, and learning practices are evolving, which involves reformulating library engagement with users and conducting ongoing exercises to examine practices systematically;
- Determining the university’s strategic directions and interests and relentlessly connecting the library with them, which requires understanding not only stated directions but underlying organizational and contextual changes;
- Identifying ambitious yet realistic strategic directions for the library unambiguously, which requires an acknowledgement both of the capacities and limitations of the library and the willingness to take leadership risks in developing plans for the library accordingly;
- Partnering with others where it can advance the library’s strategic objectives by generating scale that provide better services or drives meaningful efficiencies, not by watering down strategic objectives under an amorphous desire to collaborate; and
- Allocating resources and incentives appropriately, to provide the staff and budget necessary to maximize success and then to reward ambition and risk-taking.
Where does this leave us today? Perhaps most importantly, it suggests an absolutely urgent need for new approaches to leadership training for academic librarians. I have argued that we must learn to think more seriously about strategy and business development and not just about values, management, and amorphous “leadership,” and I believe this only more strongly today. Improving the strategic aptitude of our community is a long-term prospect but one on which we must not tarry.