WLIC/IFLA2017: UBER for scholarly communications and libraries? It’s already here…

WLIC/IFLA2017: UBER for scholarly communications and libraries? It’s already here…

You all know of the digital revolution that is changing the world of service - Amazon, UBER, AirBnB, coupled to Facebook, Google, Siri, etc. The common feature is a large corporation (usually from Silicon valley) which builds a digital infrastructure that controls and feeds off service providers. UBER doesn’t own taxis, and takes no responsibility for their actions. AirBnB doesn’t own hotels, Amazon doesn’t have shopfronts. But they act as the central point for searches, and they design and control the infrastructure. Could it happen for scholcom / libraries? TL;DR it’s already happened.

You may love UBER, may accept it as part of change, or rebel against it.  If you want to save money or save time it’s probably great. If you don’t care whether the drivers are insured or maintain their vehicles, fine. If you don’t care about regulation, and think that a neoliberal market will determine best practices, I can’t convince you.

But if you are a conventional service provider (hotels, taxis) you probably resent the newcomers. If you are blind, or have reduced mobility,  and are used to service provision by taxis you’ll probably be sidelined. UBER and the rest provide what is most cost-effective for them, not what the community needs.

So could it happen in scholarly communications and academic libraries? Where the merit of works is determined by communities of practice? Where all the material is created by academics, and reviewed by academics? Isn’t the dissemination overseen by the Universities and their libraries? And isn’t there public oversight of the practices?


It’s overseen and tightly controlled by commercial companies who have no public governance, can make the rules and who can break the rules and get away with it. While the non-profit organizations are nominally academic societal, in practice many are controlled by managers whose primary requirement is often to generate income as much as to spread knowledge. The worth of scientists is determined not by community acclaim or considered debate but by algorithms run by the mega-companies. Journals are, for the most part, created and managed by corporations. Society journals exist, and new journals are created, but many increasingly end up by being commercialised. What role does the Library have?

Very little.

It nominally carries out the purchase - but has little freedom in a market which is designed for the transfer of money, not knowledge. In the digital era, libraries should be massively innovating new types of knowledge, not simply acting as agents for commercial publishers.

So now Libraries have a chance to change. Where they can take part in the creation of new knowledge. To help researchers. To defend freedom.

It’s probably the last great opportunity for libraries:

Content-mining (aka Text and Data Mining, TDM).

This is a tailor-made opportunity for Libraries to show what they can contribute. TDM has been made legal and encouraged in the UK for 3 years. Yet no UK Library has made a significant investment, no UK Vice Chancellor has spoken positively of the possibilities, no researchers have been encouraged. [1]

And many have been discouraged - formally - including me.

Mining is as revolutionary as the printing press. Libraries should be welcoming it rather than neglecting or even obstructing it. If they don’t embrace it, then the science library will go the way of the corner shop, the family taxi, the pub. These are becoming flattened by US mega-corporations. Products are designed and disseminated by cash-fed algorithms.

The same is happening with libraries.

There is still time to act. Perhaps 6 months. Universities spend 20,000,000,000 USD per year (20 Billion) on scholarly publishing - almost all goes to mega-corporations. If they spent as little as 1% of that (== 200 Million USD) on changing the world it would be transformative. And if they did this by supporting Early Career Researchers (of all ages) it could change the world.

If you are interested, read the next blog post. Tomorrow.

[1] The University of Cambridge Office of Scholarly Communication ran the first UK University meeting on TDM last month.


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