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Good vs. Evil

Finding the right balance between for-profit and not-for-profit services

Every day, choices are made, and positions advocated, about the best organizational forms for providing the various services needed for the academic enterprise. This is an important, and under-examined, issue for academia.

As well-resourced as some universities are, they are not infinite in size, and, as a result, they have to prioritize their investments. When purchasing or developing scholarly communications services, library systems, and research workflow tools, individual universities seek cross-institutional scale — that is, if multiple institutions require the same tools, there are efficiencies in having one tool made for all these institutions. Scale can be achieved in a variety of ways, including open source software, institutional partnerships, consortia, and outsourcing to third-party organizations, both not-for-profit (NFP) and commercial in structure.

The two of us have been debating for some time which services should be controlled directly by the academy and which services are best provided by third-party vendors, many of which operate as for-profit enterprises. Roger has written extensively about this, for example this article and this article, arguing that many academic institutions and their collaborative vehicles have not developed the strategic or governance posture necessary to offer a realistic alternative to commercial enterprises. Joe has analyzed some of the reasons that the academy has outsourced scholarly publishing in particular, largely (but not entirely) to commercial firms. These conversations take place against a backdrop in which some believe that the academy should “should step up to invest in home-grown research infrastructures and cross-institution consortia”, while others, of a free market persuasion, believe that commercial enterprise solves virtually all problems. Not surprisingly, we fall somewhere between the two ends of the continuum — and toggle from left to right and back again depending on circumstances. While we don’t have a prescription for determining which service should fall into what bucket, we have been developing a list of questions to help make these judgments.

Please select this link to read the complete article from The Scholarly Kitchen.

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