Unsub: Part 2: Jason Priem on the Past, Present & Future of Unsub and Scholarly Publishing

by | Apr 20, 2021 | 0 comments


By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries

Jason Priem

Jason Priem describes himself as having a passion for making science more open and reusable online who enjoys both writing and building things. He cofounded Impactstory, which has evolved into Our Research, which is dedicated to creating “tools to make scholarly research more open, connected, and reusable—for everyone which is dedicated to creating.  The tools are “free, open-source tools that serve millions of API requests every day, and are relied on by research funders, universities, researchers, and thousands of academic libraries worldwide.” He was a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science (SILS) and is one of the authors of Altmetrics: A Manfesto. This interview was conducted over email earlier this month.

NKH: Not only have we been facing outrageous price increases for journals over the past 20 years as the private companies have used access to these critical resources to support their own growth and create huge international monopolies of research scholarship, we are seeing COVID and other factors limiting the ability of libraries to provide access to all of the relevant information that their communities need today. Clearly you have been at the forefront of key change – and not just for libraries, but for the larger research community that libraries serve and the well-being of our global communities. How did you get involved in this movement – and grow to become one of the key players across the globe?

JP: Heather and I individually got excited about open science while working on our PhDs. We met each other when I peer-reviewed one of her papers; later we met in person as part of an open science hackathon. The hackathon ended in the evening, but we went out in the hall of the hotel and kept working all through the night. I remember being surprised when the hall started getting crowded by waiters serving breakfast the next morning! 

That hackathon project went on to become Impactstory Profiles, our first big website. From there, we built Unpaywall, a free and open index of all the world’s OA articles. Many libraries asked us to build a subscription analysis tool using Unpaywall data, so we did. That became Unsub, and here we are!

NKH: The one thing that I hear most often about Unsub from subscribers is that this tool has allowed libraries a clear picture of the serials crisis that is making their work to get faculty/institutions supporting their needs to unbundle the bundles and look more logically at access to research today. Many library leaders admit they don’t have the statistical backgrounds to pull these things together themselves and that the prime value that got them on board with Unsub was the clear presentations and data analysis that has been so persuasive in getting faculty and administrators on board. Is this what you hear?

JP: Yes, we do hear that! Folks really seem to like how Unsub helps with communication. We also hear three other main reasons that libraries like Unsub:

  1. Unsub is more comprehensive. Our model accounts for the effect of OA (green, hybrid, bronze, and delayed), COUNTER downloads, previously-purchased backfile, interlibrary loan, document delivery, faculty citation and authorship patterns, journal readership decay curves, and much more. It’s just a more complete picture.
  1. Unsub forecasts the future. Instead of just looking at the current state of your collection, Unsub uses a forecasting model (trained on millions of data points) to simulate the future. Users can experiment to see how their plans will affect costs and fulfillment rates for the next five years–it’s kind of like playing SimCity with your serials collection.
  1. Unsub saves time. For most users, it takes just hours to set up an Unsub profile; you just upload your COUNTER report, perpetual access status, and price lists. After that, it’s all gravy: Unsub replaces annoying and time-consuming spreadsheet-juggling with a simple UI. A lot of users tell us that Unsub makes their job way easier, which we love to hear.

NKH: The most recent data I saw from your website listed 300 libraries using Unsub, costing libraries between $500 and $3,000 annually, depending on the library’s size. Is this still the case? How is Unsub doing outside the Americas and Europe, where it clearly has a strong foothold?

JP: Over 400 libraries now have Unsub accounts–we need to update our website. But that cost you state is accurate. As a mission-driven nonprofit, we keep the price as low as possible, while still keeping our lights on (we’ve had help from Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin). We’re proud of that low price, which is less than a third of what 1figr was charging for a similar (though less full-featured) service when they were operating.

Regionally, the majority of our users are in North America, but that’s expanding. We’ve just announced that Jisc will be using Unsub. Jisc negotiates subscription deals for the whole UK higher education sector. CAUL, which plays a similar role in Australia, uses Unsub, too. We also have users in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, though not as many. We’re happy to be growing pretty much everywhere! Our goal is that every library in the world will be able to use Unsub to regain control of their subscription spending.

NKH: Another aspect of the Unsub system that I hear from Unsub users has been able to create a new type of community and initial new types of discussions amongst libraries themselves. Fiscal responsibility is taking new forms – both individually for libraries and across types of libraries across the world. Many Unsub institutions I’ve contacted have used the term “movement” rather than just a “fiscal tool” to describe Unsub. This has to be very rewarding! Your thoughts on the growth?

JP: Yes, it is very rewarding! We absolutely see this as a movement. In part, it’s a movement for libraries to take back control of their budgets. But beyond that, it’s a movement to position libraries as dynamic, essential campus leaders in the coming world of universal open access. This movement is much bigger (and older) than Unsub! It’s not our movement; it belongs to libraries, and in a broader sense to the research enterprise as a whole. But we are proud and delighted to be a part of it!

NKH: Today we are facing another equally daunting issue: COVID and dealing with the unknown future ‘new normal’ that awaits us. The COVID crisis has forced attention to the critical issues of bringing breaking scientific knowledge to colleagues as quickly and transparently as possible. Research is being shared in new ways that often ignore or supercede traditional publishing. As a recent Nature study found: “A flood of coronavirus research swept websites and journals this year. It changed how and what scientists study.” Once the dust settles on this crisis, it will be interesting to see what the ‘new normal’ will look like for research distribution/publishing? Your thoughts?

JP: Big question! I like it! I’ll try to give my short answer. Like many people, I expect that COVID won’t transform many things on its own, but will rather accelerate change that’s already happening. For publishing, that means a move beyond the paper and to the decoupled journal: preprints, datasets, software, and distributed open review will gradually replace monolithic, standalone, vertically-integrated journals. eLife is doing great things here.

For libraries, we’ll certainly see more and more cancel Big Deals; their time was already ending, but COVID and Unsub have sped up the clock. Many libraries, especially in Europe, will replace subscription deals with Read And Publish. Libraries will put increasing support behind OA through initiatives like subscribe to open and PLOS’ Community Action Publishing. What I’m most excited about is libraries gradually realizing that they should transition away from owning content to owning infrastructure. So that means moving resources away from toll-access publishing, and toward open-source, community owned infrastructure projects that can compete with the increasingly hegemonic publisher offerings. I love the leadership SPARC is providing here.

NKH: Journal value is key to faculty publishing choices and to the ability for institutions to be seen as cutting-edge. Do you see this changing as well? What other metrics do you see replacing some of these age-old metrics for library status (collection size, journal subscriptions, etc.)? What factors do you see that playing in the process of change?

JP: That’s a great question. Through the medium-term future, traditional metrics like COUNTER downloads and cost-per-use will remain valuable; Unsub works at this level. But longer-term, yes, I do think that the way libraries evaluate themselves will need to change.

Now, I’m a guy who is interested in finding new metrics for things. But as we think longer term, I believe we need to think beyond metrics. We’re at a pivot point in the history of libraries. Since the days of the Library of Alexandria, a library has provided access. That role is going away. Today, most scholarship is published as OA, and soon, all scholarship will be. Libraries are going to need to become something different. How can we measure that new thing, until we’ve seen it?

So now is the time for deeds, not metrics! It’s the time for creativity, for invention. Forward-thinking libraries are already publishing, teaching, providing workflow tools, and evaluating research impact, and supporting OA. Let’s do more of this! Let’s invent the future before we try to measure it.

In many ways, libraries have a great head start here, because at least they have seen that research communication is fundamentally transforming. Publishers and researchers are figuring this out more slowly. It’s a great time for libraries to lead. Damn the metrics, full speed ahead!

Heather Piwowar

NKH: Originally called Unpaywall Journals, launched in November 2019 by yourself and Heather Piwowar – both of you having been key to the development of Impactstory (now called Our Research) as well. You now also have Heather Joseph and so many other incredible staff members on board. What next for Unsub itself? What are your goals for the company in the next 5-10 years?

JP: This year for Unsub, we’ve got some cool new features planned, including support for aggregators (like EBSCO), multiple currencies, and analysis of all scholarly publishers. Looking further ahead than that, our plan is to stay flexible and let the community’s needs help shape our direction as we go. That approach has worked well for us so far.

One of our strengths as a small organization is that we can be quick to address newly-emerging opportunities. Two years ago, we hadn’t even started building Unsub yet! So two years from now…I don’t know, a lot can happen in two years! It will be fun finding out together.

That being said, Heather and I have been more or less working on the same overall project since we started eight years ago: building open tools to help accelerate the transition to Open Science. I think we’ll still be doing that in 5-10 years, too. We’ve got lots of ideas for that still, and we keep getting new ones all the time.

NKH: A few years ago, another similar tool called 1figr, produced by 1Science, a scholarly services firm, was acquired by Elsevier in 2018. This was pointed out to me by one librarian fearing a potential sell-out or other unsettling potential development. Can you reassure readers on the future of Unsub?

JP: People have always asked us about a possible Elsevier acquisition, and I always say the same thing: don’t worry–for now we have no plans to acquire Elsevier.

Seriously, though: great question! I wish more folks were asking it. Right now, scholarly infrastructure is at risk of complete colonization by corporate oligopoly. We must avoid this. We need to ask this question more. Increasingly, people are caring about where their food and clothes and energy come from…let’s also start caring where our research infrastructure comes from! And let’s make it come from non-profits aligned with our community.

Anyway, to answer the question: if you look at acquisitions over the last few years (including 1figr), you’ll notice they all fit this pattern: a for-profit with closed-source code sells itself to a big company. This makes sense. The closed code is a valuable thing to buy, and the for-profit being acquired exists to sell things and make money. They have a fiduciary obligation to do so.

We, on the other hand, are a 501(c)3 non-profit, built on fully open-source code. There is no codebase to buy; you can download it for free. And we don’t exist to make money–we exist to accelerate the transition to Open Science. That’s our mission, and we have a legal obligation to pursue it. Being acquired by someone like Elseiver doesn’t help us achieve our mission–it works against it. So we won’t do that.

Heather and I have spent the last ten years advocating for Open – first working as researchers, and now as open-source developers. And our board of directors includes Ethan White (researcher and tireless OA and Open Data advocate) and Heather Joseph (director of SPARC and OA rockstar). We care about this stuff. Our company is currently self-sustaining, has an 8-year track record of sustainability, and we are not going away any time soon. We are passionately committed to remaining independent and pursuing our mission.

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries. [email protected]


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