The Business of Being Open

‘Business’ is often seen as a dirty word when talking about open solutions – whether that be open access, open data or for me open source software. It’s amazing that people always seem to think that the two things don’t go together…but of course for anything to survive in any practical sense, someone has to be paying for it somewhere.

This has pre-occupied my mind a lot over the last few months as we look to move the Shibboleth project in to a new business model, supported by the Shibboleth Consortium. When we first started talking about a new business model, a lot of people immediately thought we were going to start charging for the software – this has never been on the table for us at all. It’s more than Open by Default, it’s just unquestionably Open.

There are of course a miriad of funding approaches for open source – from the projects that run purely on donated time by people who love what they are doing, through membership schemes and supported models, where the product is free and users pay for support or consultancy. There is one thing that is similar about all of these though – you pay for the labour and not for the product. I think it is entirely fair that hard working programmers do actually get paid at some point, particularly when the product – like Shibboleth – has an international market that runs to millions of end users. It’s entirely possible to do this without flogging a product by funding the service of software creation and not the content itself.

What comes below will be obvious for those of you who work regularly on open access, but for me comparing it to the standard way of working for open source providers was a helpful and cathartic exercise. Apologies if it sounds like teaching you to suck eggs πŸ™‚

Following the recent Elsevier furore from a distance, it seems to me that this is where the publishing industry has everything back to front. There are four key parts to the work undertaken in the academic publishing cycle:

  1. The work carried out out by the researcher / author that leads to a proposed article. Typically paid for by a research grant or institutional wages.
  2. The peer review work carried out by researchers worldwide. This is more tenuous to define, but lets assume this is paid for by institutional wages or just plain old good will.
  3. The administration of the peer review process. This is paid for by the publisher.
  4. The hosting arrangements for the journals. Again, this is paid for by the publisher.

Pulbishers are quick to cry out ‘we add value!’ and of course they should be entitled to be paid for the chunk of value that they do add – i.e. steps 3 and 4 above. This can be done by paying them for the labour and service, with a sensible overhead. I believe a payment for labour would also help improve quality. Whilst I think most researchers appreciate the work undertaken by publisher staff to coordinate the peer review process (often a thankless task), the quality of the hosting arrangements is often poor – publisher websites tend to care very little about being user friendly and optimising results for searches. If they were paid for labour and service rather than content, would this improve?

So yes I think it is entirely fair that publishers should be paid for where they add value, but this value has to be of the same high standard expected of the authors. It can also be achieved without having to sell the content, but by selling a service back to the community. I also think it is reasonable to make a commercial profit on that service, even whilst noting that no-one makes a commercial profit on points 1 and 2 at the moment.

My point being, its perfectly possible to run a profitable business model without forcing researchers to give up their own content, sign their rights away and then forcing institutions to buy the work back from a publisher. It would be akin to IT staff within an institution writing code for Microsoft, giving it away for free, and then spending an institutional fortune on buying Microsoft licenses. That would be crazy, right?

As for us, what are we trying to do? Well Shibboleth has always attracted money in some sense or another – predominantly through grants from Internet2, JISC and SWITCH. We recognised that we wanted to spread the burden of the cost of developing and maintaining Shibboleth, so we are establishing the Shibboleth Consortium. The Consortium will welcome both ‘sustaining members’ (i.e. organisations making significant contributions that help us keep afloat) but also smaller donations (as a sort of ‘I appreciate using your software’). The obvious goal is to achieve enough funding to address the current Shibboleth roadmap, the ideal goal will be to achieve more funding so we can add more hours to the roadmap. I’m obviously nervous about making this work but feel calm that by funding labour and not product, we are offering real value to the community.

4 thoughts on “The Business of Being Open

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  2. Jonathan Rochkind

    > Whilst I think most researchers appreciate the work undertaken by publisher staff to coordinate the peer review process (often a thankless task), the quality of the hosting arrangements is often poor – publisher websites tend to care very little about being user friendly and optimising results for searches. If they were paid for labour and service rather than content, would this improve?

    I wonder if this means not exactly being a PUBLISHER at all. The Journal itself would be an incorporated entity (probably but not neccesarily not-for-profit), and it would simply pay a _contractor_, with a limited term contract, for adminstrative support, and technical/hosting/platform support.

    In theory, at any point (or when the contract’s up), the Journal itself could change it’s vendor for administrative support and/or IT platform provision (could even be two different vendors). They’d take the hostname with them, that would belong to the Journal. (Of course practical matters of ‘cost of switch’ and bad technology would make it harder than this to really switch IT platform providers, without losing content and keeping old links working, but these are technical problems, perhaps in a competitive market vendors of IT platform could distinguish themselves by handling this better).

    Is this saying the same thing you’re thinking, or something different?

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