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Connecting the Knowledge Commons — From Projects to Sustainable Infrastructure

Leslie Chan
Pierre Mounier


Open Infrastructure: From Monocultures to Bibliodiversity

Leslie Chan

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1This volume brings together selected full papers from the 2018 ELPUB conference on the theme of Connecting the Knowledge Commons: From Projects to Sustainable Infrastructure. These papers went through a second round of external review after the conference, then they were revised by the authors accordingly.

2ELPUB, which stands for Electronic Publishing, is one of the longest running international conference series dedicated to exploring and sharing ideas on the impact of new information and communication technologies on the practice of “publishing” and information dissemination. Over the years, ELPUB has brought together a diverse international community of librarians, developers, publishers, entrepreneurs, administrators, policy makers, and researchers across the disciplines in the sciences and the humanities.

  • 1 For a brief history on the origin of ELPUB, read Olivia Holmes essay here: https://elpub2019.hypot (...)
  • 2 All the Proceedings of ELPUB since its inception are archived at the Computer Science Bibliography (...)

3With the first conference held in 1997, the earlier iterations of the series had a rather broad base attention to publishing across various cultural and industrial sectors.1 In recent years however, the focus of the series has been more concentrated on academic or scholarly communication in particular. Not surprisingly, Open Access (OA) and its associated technology and social support systems have become one of the key topics of the conference series in recent years.2

4The conference series therefore reflect and document the many major changes taking place in the scholarly communication landscape over the last two decades. While it appears that the moral battle for Open Access for the public good had largely been won, the battle over how best to provide and sustain OA continues to be hotly contested. But one thing remains constant. The object of OA continues to be the journal and its content, while maintaining prestige and garnishing metrics continue to be the key incentive for researchers and their institutions. This has allowed legacy publishers with their familiar brands to continue with their strong hold on the reputation economy.

5Innovations, such as the so-called megajournals pioneered by PLoS and founded by researchers, have led to interesting developments in peer review, article level metrics, and data sharing. It had also helped expand the conservation on OA to Open Science, the umbrella term that calls for opening access to the entire research life cycle. This in theory had the potential to further democratize access and participation in the knowledge production process. But the exclusive reliance on the APC model and its success in generating handsome revenue has created such a boom in the industry that many new to OA have often mistaken the APC model as synonymous to OA. The replication of the megajournal model by new and legacy publishers has driven the debate further towards the economic aspects of OA, focusing on who pays, how much, and how “sustainable” such payments would be. In other words, sustainability has become how much money the current system, largely supported by public funding, could continue to pay the private sector publishers.

  • 3 Studies documenting such outcomes are beginning to emerge. See for example Beasley and the recent (...)
  • 4 See for details on the potential negative consequences of policies and sta (...)

6The announcement of PlanS last year only amplified the economic dimension of the issue. It is primarily designed to control the rising costs of APC, but it will unlikely disrupt the existing and indeed growing power structure of the publishing industry. At the same time, it will likely lead to an over-representation of authors who have the advantage of receiving funding from funders who mandate OA, while unfunded researchers and those in poorly resourced institutions will be under-represented under the APC model.3 This has particularly strong and negative implications for researchers and institutions from the global South. And colleagues from Latin America, representing community based projects and the new initiative AmeliCA (Open Knowledge for Latin America and the Global South) have been articulating forcefully why the global North model will further disadvantage scholarship from the global South.4

7The inequity being amplified by the APC model forces us to rethink the meaning of openness, and why we favor OA in the first place. OA is a means to various ends, and these ends are dependent on the context of the knowledge producer and the user. Policies like PlanS are focusing on the visible problems of accessibility by trying to eliminate the paywall, but it fails to address the embedded structural problems that are deeply rooted in the knowledge production system. Understanding these often hidden and invisible structural problems requires us to examine the history and political ideology that form the foundation of the western knowledge system, which favors hierarchies of knowledge, while privileging the normative science and scholarship from the West as the standard by which all other forms of knowledge are being measured. The dreaded, or revered, journal impact factor is but a visible form of “standard” and power that enforces a set of invisible norms that only those privileged enough to gain access to them are given additional advantage to succeed. On the other hand, knowledge outside of the norm are often rendered invisible by this system of power.

8The consolidation of the legacy power teaches us an important lesson. Despite the sustained interest, the OA movement and OA communities are really a hodge-podge and at times loosely connected organizations, coalitions, and individuals that have very different motivations and incentives for achieving OA. As a result, they often work at cross-purposes. In the meantime, the commercial interests are unified in their goal, that is how to maximize their growth, create new revenue streams, and sustain their profit margins. They have clear sustainability plans, the OA communities do not, and they have successfully co-opted the OA agenda in their favor.

9In recent years, some of the well-resourced multinational publishers like Elsevier have been busy transforming themselves from content producers to “analytics” companies, building end-to-end platforms through merger and acquisitions. They understand that in the growing platform economy, big data on institutional performance and productivity in research are the “new oil” waiting to be extracted and turned into new financial products. As higher education becomes highly internationalized and marketized, competition to maintain or improve on their global rankings are becoming imperative. As a result, universities are willing not only to pay substantial amounts to buy the analytics and “intelligence” that would inform their decision making, they are also willingly giving away their institutional data while outsourcing their infrastructure needs to the same publishers to ensure their competitiveness in the global arena.

10The OA communities are awakening to this growing trend of the vertical integration of infrastructure, and organizations such as SPARC and others have been raising the alarm bell about the potential consequences when publishers not only have near monopoly power over pricing, but also begin to take “soft” control over university’s decision making processes on resource allocation on research based on big data analytics.5 This is a far bigger concern than the one raised by Bilder, Lin and Neylon that “Everything we have gained by opening content and data will be under threat if we allow the enclosure of scholarly infrastructures.”

11It was against such a backdrop that the 2018 and 2019 ELPUB conferences were conceived. The ELPUB venue allows a broad community to think collectively about what constitutes scholarly infrastructure, and how to ensure that infrastructure are kept “open” and under community control and governance. Of course one of the persistent challenges has always been funding and the sustainability of social systems that underlie the physical and technical infrastructure.

12There are also growing lessons that simply focusing on the technical and economic dimensions of OA and infrastructure are not sufficient and we have to pay equal if not more attention to the socio-political dimensions of infrastructure design and building. We need to think beyond whether the system is open or closed, but also who builds them, who sets the agenda, who makes the decisions about standards, for what purpose, and who has control and governance of the system. As infrastructures are never neutral, we need to be cognizant about biases that may further entrench inequity in whose knowledge is privileged and whose knowledge is made invisible by the current system.

13In this regard, the notion of “bibliodiversity,” the theme of ELPUB2019, is particularly pertinent. A term coined by Chilean publishers in the 1990s:

Bibliodiversity is cultural diversity applied to the world of books. Echoing biodiversity, it refers to the critical diversity of products (books, scripts, eBooks, apps and oral literature) made available to readers. Bibliodiversity is a complex self-sustaining system of storytelling, writing, publishing and other kinds of production of oral and written literature. The writers and producers are comparable to the inhabitants of an ecosystem. Bibliodiversity contributes to a thriving life of culture and a healthy eco-social system. (L’Alliance internationale des éditeurs indépendants)

14Far from promoting bibliodiversity, the dominant “ecosystem” today has increasingly been prescribing what Vandana Shiva has called the “monocultures of the mind”, as the logic of the system has been driven primarily by market imperatives. In this regard, sustainability cannot simply be about financial viability. Instead, it should be about enabling a diversity of systems that “preserve and strengthen plurality and the diffusion of ideas”6 and allow for the participation of diverse actors and institutions. So how should we co-create a healthy ecosystem of knowledges that celebrates diversity of thoughts while addressing epistemic injustice?7 This remains the biggest challenge for the Open Access communities.


Beasley, Gerald. “Article Processing Charges: A New Route to Open Access?” Information Services & Use, vol. 36, no. 3-4, 2016, pp. 163-170. doi:10.3233/ISU-160815

Bilder, Geoffrey, Jennifer Lin and Cameron Neylon. “Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructure”, version 1, 23 February 2015. doi:10.6084/m9.figshare.1314859

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford, 2007. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198237907.001.0001

Khoo, Shaun Yon-Seng. “Article Processing Charge Hyperinflation and Price Insensitivity: An Open Access Sequel to the Serials Crisis.” LIBER Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1-18. doi:10.18352/lq.10280

L’Alliance internationale des éditeurs indépendants. “International Declaration of Independent Publishers, to promote and strengthen bibliodiversity together.” 2014,

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. Routledge, 2014.

Shiva, Vandana. Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. London, New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd, 1993.

Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). “SPARC Landscape Analysis: The Changing Academic Publishing Industry–Implications for Academic Institutions.” 2019,


1 For a brief history on the origin of ELPUB, read Olivia Holmes essay here:

2 All the Proceedings of ELPUB since its inception are archived at the Computer Science Bibliography database and at the ELPUB Digital Library

3 Studies documenting such outcomes are beginning to emerge. See for example Beasley and the recent study by Khoo.

4 See for details on the potential negative consequences of policies and standards from the global North on other parts of the world, and why locally driven community based initiatives are far more appropriate for local needs.

5 See the SPARC landscape analysis:

6 Also from the Declaration of Independent Publishers:

7 The idea that knowledge practices and institutions may be structured and enacted in ways that simultaneously privilege certain epistemic values (such as universality, objectivity, and truth) while being unjust or dismissive towards particular knowers or ways of knowing (Fricker; Santos).


University of Toronto Scarborough


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