Image: San Francisco Public Toilet from Jamie's Flickr PhotoStream

As open access has increasingly been mandated, academic publishers have realized that there’s money to be made in tracking our ‘outputs

Imagine that you’re out in public when a call of nature of the excretory variety strikes. At this point, you are presented with two options. The first is a toilet that you have to pay to enter – although it doesn’t cost the usual 20p but the wildly inflated amount of £20. The good news is that there’s another toilet nearby that you can access for free. But there’s a catch, see, because once you enter the loo, your every movement is tracked: not just your identity, but how you use the toilet (standing vs. sitting vs. squatting), the amount of toilet paper you use (and whether you’re a scruncher or a folder), the quantity and consistency of the ‘outputs’ you produce, whether you flush, wash your hands and for how long. While this information might seem both pointless and worthless (as most of our expressions containing the word ‘shit’ attest), as it turns out, someone – in fact, a plethora of people – are keenly interested in your excretory habits: toilet paper producers, toilet manufacturers, liquid soap makers, constipation supplement companies, and so on. Thus, the company that owns the toilet and tracks your movements is able to monetise your excretory activities by packaging this information and selling it.

As someone who has a recurring dream that I’m sitting on a toilet happily going about my business, before I suddenly realise that the walls are completely transparent and dozens of onlookers are peering in interestedly, the latter scenario makes me break into a cold sweat. But, of course, this is the world we increasingly live in. Change the toilet company to Facebook, Google or Twitter, and our physical outputs to our digital ones, and you have what has become the prevailing business model in the internet age: while the platform is free, the money is in the analytics surrounding it, which are tracked, packaged and sold to the highest bidder. Now, we might imagine that mainstream academic publishing remains firmly wedded to the first model, where the user (a.k.a. the library) pays to access the – ahem – toilet,[i] as it were. However, as the battle for open access has increasingly been won, and corporate publishers are beginning to see the writing on the (pay)wall, they are moving apace into the acquisition of the infrastructure that surrounds scholarly publishing.

Leading the way is Elsevier, which is basically the reigning Heather: the red-ribbon-wearing mega-bitch that the other members of the Heathers (a.k.a. the Big Five) aspire to be. As Posada and Chen show, under its new banner as a ‘global information analytics business’, Elsevier’s strategic buy-up of academic infrastructure has seen it insert itself into every aspect of the knowledge production process. However, this move has been the focus of relatively little attention, largely because critics of scholarly publishing have been so focused on publishers themselves. Indeed, Elsevier seems to have captured attention primarily because it’s a publisher moving into the infrastructure business. But what of those companies providing scholarly infrastructure and analytics that have never been in (and have no intentions of entering) academic publishing? These seem to have flown largely under the radar, despite the fact that they, too, are busily buying up infrastructure and consolidating their positions as service providers and analytics producers.

Take Clarivate Analytics, which you probably haven’t heard of, although the chances are high that you’re familiar with at least some of their products. Ever used the Social Sciences Citation Index, or, the more likely scenario, checked out the impact factor of a particular journal? Submitted a manuscript to a journal via the Scholar One submission platform? Are you perhaps a member of the reviewer platform Publons? Do you use EndNote, which now not only manages your references for you but gives you suggestions on where to submit your manuscript? Have you heard of Kopernio, a plugin which allows you to find free PDFs of journal articles? What about InCites, which you may not be personally familiar with, but your institution probably subscribes to, as it allows them to track citation data at an organisational level, along with that of the competition.

One of the reasons why Clarivate Analytics has maintained a low profile is that it’s a new company, although its history dates back to 1960 and an organisation called the Institute for Scientific Information. Founded by Eugene Garfield, the ISI was a bibliographic database service specialising in citation indexing and analysis. ISI’s core business was its three citation indexes: the Sciences Citation Index, the Social Sciences Citation Index and the Arts & Humanities Citation Index – collectively known today as ‘Web of Science’. However, its most significant (if infamous) legacy is unquestionably the journal impact factor. Initially developed as a means of helping US librarians make decisions about which journals to purchase, the impact factor ultimately became the highly lucrative heart of its business model, helped in no small measure by the rise of academic audit systems in the 1990s and the growing importance of the journal impact factor as a proxy measure of the value of individual academics’ research.

In 1992, ISI was acquired by Thomson Scientific & Healthcare. In 1998, Thomson merged with Reuters and became Thomson Reuters and there it stayed – rebranded as Thomson ISI – until 2016, when two private equity firms (Onex Corporation and Baring Private Equity Asia) purchased Thomson Reuters’ Intellectual Property and Science division for US$3.55 billion dollars, setting it up as an independent company and rebranding it ‘Clarivate Analytics’. Since then, Clarivate Analytics has acquired Publons and Kopernio, adding to the already extensive holdings it inherited from Thomson Reuters, which include EndNote, Scholar One, Web of Science, the Journal Citation Reports (which publishes journal impact factors on an annual basis) and InCites, along with TP’s intellectual property and patent business. Thus, while its insertion into the academic research process may not be quite so extensive as that of Elsevier, Clarivate Analytics (as with Thomson Reuters before it) is a highly influential corporate player in the provision of scholarly infrastructure to publishers, universities and academics (see figure 1), and makes a tidy profit from the analytics surrounding it.

Clarivate Analytics and the knowledge production process (inspired by Posada and Chen’s diagram on Elsevier)

Now, whether you think this is a problem or not depends on whether you’re an unmitigated fan, of, say, Amazon, Google or Facebook. Clarivate Analytics and its predecessor, Thomson Reuters, love to talk of a more ‘integrated’, ‘streamlined’ and ‘efficient’ research process, but, while this may well be true, it also becomes increasingly oligarchic, self-referential and exclusionary, potentially operating more like a Möbius strip than, say, an information highway. As Chris Kelty has recently asked in his piece in Guerilla Open Access: ‘Are we not witnessing a transition to a world where scholarship is directed – in its very content and organization – towards the profitability of the platforms that ostensibly serve it? Is it not possible that the platforms created to “service science”… that these platforms might actually end up warping the very content of scholarly production in the service of their profitability?’ (p. 7).

Yet, while the distortions introduced by Google, Facebook and the like are widely recognised and hotly debated, a number of open access advocates have been so focused on paywalls that the equivalent academic infrastructure has been largely overlooked, despite its similarly powerful and equally profit-driven role in determining the searchability, findability, credibility and ‘impact’ of academic research. In sum, and to return to my initial analogy, in thinking about access to scholarly knowledge and the issue of openness, it’s not just a question of shitting or getting off the pot. Instead, it’s equally important to be thinking about the way we shit and the qualities of the pot itself.[ii]


[i] I think it’s safe to say that I have flogged this metaphor well beyond its natural limits.

[ii] ‘Why use public toilets as an analogy for academic publishing?’ I hear you ask. Is this further evidence of my well-documented anal fixation? An allusion to the rise of the concept of the academic ‘output’, with its conflation of production and expulsion? Or merely a way for me to sneak in links to completely unrelated blog posts?

About the Author: Kirsten Bell is a Professor of Social Anthropology at the Centre for Research in Evolutionary, Social and Inter-Disciplinary Anthropology at Roehampton University. She has research interests in the anthropology of health and medicine and her research has focused on bringing an anthropological lens to bear on smoking and cancer.  However, she is also interested in procedural research ethics and scholarly publishing and the hidden processes that shape academic knowledge production.