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Sustaining Healthy Organisms: The Role of the Librarian When the Scholarly Ecosystems are Shrinking

November 9, 2018

During a recent Scholarly Kitchen Webinar on “The Future of Publisher Independence in a Consolidated Scholarly Ecosystem” offered by the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign librarian and professor Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe mentioned Roger Schonfeld’s writing from earlier this year related to the subject (Cf. “Research Infrastructure and the Strategic Decisions of Universities.” Ithaka S+R (blog), January 10, 2018). The phrase that really struck home was “lock in.” As in publishers attempting to “lock-in” stakeholders by becoming platform-based content and service providers who seek to manage the research workflow from end to end. As was also pointed out during the Webinar, this is really an idiosyncratic development resulting from many isolated business decisions rather than a conspiracy mapped out in advance, despite the disturbing thoughts about the latter which fuel the imaginations of librarians.


“What Is Researcher Workflow?” Ithaka S+R (blog), December 13, 2017.

Nonetheless, librarians cannot afford to be ostriches when it comes to the retail business models being adopted by the academic publishers with whom we largely work. A recent article about RBMs states, “the logic of value cocreation in platform business models involves versatile actors, engaged in sharing and collaborating to exchange service symbiotically” (Fehrer, et al. 2018). Which means libraries need to see themselves as relational collaborators and not simply customers. However, this takes librarians being aware of the seismic shifts going on. As the same article points out, “The orchestration of actors beyond the platform within the broader platform ecosystem—coupled with advanced technologies for analytics, artificial intelligence and autonomy, is changing the landscape of business.” In fact, within“key research areas” Fehrer, et al. articulate, “Finally, academics are encouraged to investigate the ‘dark side’ of platform ecosystems. Market concentration and collective actions may result in negative dynamics for focal actors, the economy, the environment or the society. These effects have to be explored in light of platform ecosystems.” Now the fears of Orwell’s Big Brother do start to creep in.

While the idea of publishing ecosystems that assist scholars in a streamline fashion from “current awareness” to “assessment” seems attractive, the sustainability risk, to continue the metaphor, is that the biome will shrink rapidly as the number of ecosystems diminish. The best analogy Hinchliffe gave is the how most universities use either Banner or PeopleSoft and have become either a Mac or Microsoft campus. So, what does that mean for the library-publisher relationship when it becomes increasingly just another university-vendor relationship? What does this do the role of the library as a stakeholder, if we become simply the conduit for platform-based services? What does this do to scholarship, if scholars are channeled by only a few one-stop discovery and dissemination platforms? Although it seems unlikely for large research institutions to place too many limits on its scholarly community, what does this do to libraries at mid-size and smaller schools? Even the big dogs usually only have one enterprise system, one learning management system, and one integrated library system. A healthy research environment, including the library, will have many kinds of habitats where knowledge creation, intellectual growth, natural hybridization and the wildlife of the academe can flourish.

Work Cited: Fehrer, Julia A., Herbert Woratschek, and Roderick J. Brodie. “A Systemic Logic for Platform Business Models.” Journal of Service Management 29, no. 4 (July 2, 2018): 546–68.

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