I was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion at this year’s Association of American of American University Presses annual meeting in Philadelphia on the topic, “Sharing Infrastructure: How Open Source Tools and Platforms and Transform Us.” The panel was organized by my colleague Neil Blair Christensen, Director of Digital Business Development at the University of California Press, and I was joined in the discussion by Alec Smecher, Lead Platform Architect at the Public Knowledge Project (PKP), and Kristen Ratan, co-founder of Collaborative Knowledge Foundation (otherwise, known to their friends as Coko). The panel began with some brief introductions. Alec took some time to give some background about what open source software can look like and how many small to mid-size organizations, PKP has enabled to thrive in scholarly communication with its Open Journal Systems (OJS) and Open Monograph Press (OMP) software. Kristen spent some time discussing some of the success stories in open source, such as OpenStack, and what the potential business models are for sustaining open source software over the long-haul, including membership participation and services businesses. I personally spent some time introducing Editoria and discussing what it does and how it works with an audience very new to open source software.
The more interesting part of the panel, however, began after the introductions were over, and we began a Q&A session, which was facilitated by Neil. We had a list of questions that Neil had prepared for the session, but audience participation was encouraged, and we received several engaging questions and comments from the audience as well. While it’s impossible to summarize the discussion here are examples of some of the questions that were asked:
- What do we mean by shared infrastructure? What’s included? What isn’t included? What are the business models?
- In a university press community that is niche in a larger picture, chronically cash and value proposition challenged, does shared infrastructure solve the right problems for AAUP members? What are the shared infrastructure value propositions for publishers?
- What are the most concrete benefits that you see from building and maintaining common infrastructure? Financial? Operational? Innovation?
- What are the risks? How do publishers differentiate themselves?
- What do you see as the takeaways for us all over the next 2-3 years? What could this medium-term look like for a university press who engages with shared infrastructure?
- What would you like people in this room to do on the topic of shared infrastructure when we leave the room, so we don’t go home to business as usual?
The answers to these questions were multi-faceted and highly nuanced. As an example: when we talk about shared infrastructure, are we exclusively talking about shared open source technical infrastructure? My personal feeling is that this is quite a limiting way to view the question. Editoria will be open source because we believe that that is the right solution for this application, and it is the right way to build an application around which a community will grow that will adopt and ultimately sustain the software. But realistically, people shopping for systems are shopping for the best tool for the job and the one, specifically, that meets their business requirements. Due to nuances like these and the lengthy discussions that ensued, we didn’t actually get to every question on the list. But these questions led to a discussion that was quite lively and engaging, and what I learned from the panel is that university presses seem to be far more eager to engage in experiments with shared technical infrastructure than I think any of the panelists, myself included, had anticipated.
The room was packed to standing room-only with university press folks from literally all departments—press directors, IT managers, marketing and sales staff, and EDP folks all turned up. Many were eager to hear about the specific piece of open source software we are developing, Editoria, but many were interested in exploring the benefits and pitfalls of wading into the waters of shared technical infrastructure with their fellow presses more generally.
If we accomplished anything in this session, I think it was to make the idea of shared open source infrastructure less scary for publishers of all shapes and sizes. After all, is there any real difference between sharing infrastructure for things like physical distribution and sharing technical infrastructure for monograph production? I believe the competencies that are necessary to manage these pieces of shared infrastructure may be quite different, but as several members of our audience pointed out, university presses will need to evolve the kinds of competencies necessary to manage technical infrastructure for publishing over time irrespective of their size as the technical demands of producing high-quality scholarship increase. And, as Alec Smecher helpfully pointed out, the Open Journal Systems software is an example of shared technical infrastructure that is already leveraged by hundreds of journals, many of which have staff that number in the single digits and some with budgets well below six figures.
I came away from this panel feeling that there is a tremendously bright future for initiatives like Editoria. Collectively, we seem to be at a turning point where there’s a willingness to experiment and change and to build and implement systems that fit our unique needs. There are certainly issues that will need to be worked out and risks that will need to be taken. Smaller publishers are less likely to be able to install open source web applications and manage them themselves, so they will need hosting services and support. Bigger publishers with greater needs for enhancements and customizations may be interested in contributing code in order to make the software help their organizations run more efficiently. But these are problems for a community to solve, and it seems we are on the brink of building such a community.