Two days after ProQuest completed their acquisition of Ex Libris in December 2015, Ex Libris announced the launch of their new online Customer Knowledge Center. In the press release for the Knowledge Center, the company describes it as “a single gateway to all Ex Libris knowledge resources,” including training materials, release notes, and product manuals. A defining feature is that there has never been any paywall or log-on requirement, so that all Knowledge Center materials remain freely accessible to any site visitor. Historically, access to documentation for automated library systems has been restricted to subscribing institutions, so the Knowledge Center represents a unique change in approach.
Within the press release, it is also readily apparent how Ex Libris aims to frame the openness of the Knowledge Center as a form of support for open access. As the company states in the second paragraph, “Demonstrating the Company’s belief in the importance of open access, the site is open to all, without requiring any logon procedure.” Former Ex Libris CEO Matti Shem Tov goes a step further in the following paragraph: “We want our resources and documentation to be as accessible and as open as our library management, discovery, and higher-education technology solutions are.”
The problem with how Ex Libris frames their press release is that it elides the difference between mere openness and actual open access. They are a for-profit company, and their currently burgeoning market share is dependent upon a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business model. Therefore, one way to describe their approach in this case is orangewashing. During a recent conversation with me, Margaret Heller came up with the term, based on the color of the PLOS open access symbol. Similar in concept to greenwashing, we can define orangewashing as a misappropriation of open access rhetoric for business purposes.
What perhaps makes orangewashing more initially difficult to diagnose in Ex Libris’s (and more broadly, ProQuest’s) case is that they attempt to tie support for open access to other product offerings. Even before purchasing Ex Libris, ProQuest had been including an author-side paid open-access publishing option to its Electronic Thesis and Dissertation platform, though we can question whether this is actually a good option for authors. For its part, Ex Libris has listened to customer feedback about open access discovery. As an example, there are now open access filters for both the Primo and Summon discovery layers.
Ex Libris has also, generally speaking, remained open to customer participation regarding systems development, particularly with initiatives like the Developer Network and Idea Exchange. Perhaps the most credible example is in a June 24, 2015 press release, where the company declares “support of the Open Discovery Initiative (ODI) and conformance with ODI’s recommended practice for pre-indexed ‘web-scale’ discovery services.” A key implication is that “conforming to ODI regulations about ranking of search results, linking to content, inclusion of materials in Primo Central, and discovery of open access content all uphold the principles of content neutrality.”
Given the above information, in the case of the Knowledge Center, it is tempting to give Ex Libris the benefit of the doubt. As an access services librarian, I understand how much of a hassle it can be to find and obtain systems documentation in order to properly do my job. I currently work for an Ex Libris institution, and can affirm that the Knowledge Center is of tangible benefit. Besides providing easier availability for their materials, Ex Libris has done fairly well in keeping information and pathing up to date. Notably, as of last month, customers can also contribute their own documentation to product-specific Community Knowledge sections within the Knowledge Center.
Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that while the Knowledge Center is unique in its format, it represents a low bar to clear for a company of Ex Libris’s size. Their systems documentation should be openly accessible in any case. Moreover, the Knowledge Center represents openness—in the form of company transparency and customer participation—for systems and products that are not open. This is why when we go back to the Knowledge Center press release, we can identify it as orangewashing. Open access is not the point of a profit-driven company offering freely accessible documentation, and any claims to this effect ultimately ring hollow.
So what is the likely point of the Knowledge Center, then? We should consider that Alma has become the predominant service platform within academic libraries, with Primo and Summon being the only supported discovery layers for it. While OCLC and EBSCO offer or support competing products, Ex Libris already held an advantageous position even before the ProQuest purchase. Therefore, besides the Knowledge Center serving as supportive measure for current customers, we can view it as a sales pitch to future ones. This may be a smart business strategy, but again, it has little to do with open access.
Two other recent developments provide further evidence of Ex Libris’s orangewashing. The first is MLA’s announcement that EBSCO will become the exclusive vendor for the MLA International Bibliography. On the PRIMO-L listserv, Ex Libris posted a statement [listserv subscription required] noting that the agreement “goes against the goals of NISO’s Open Discovery Initiative…to promote collaboration and transparency among content and discovery providers.” Nevertheless, despite not being involved in the agreement, Ex Libris shares some blame given the long-standing difficulty over EBSCO not providing content to the Primo Central Index. As a result, what may occur is the “siloing” of an indispensable research database, while Ex Libris customers remain dependent on the company to help determine an eventual route to access.
Secondly, in addition to offering research publications through ProQuest and discovery service through Primo/Summon, Ex Libris now provides end-to-end content management through Esploro. Monetizing more aspects of the research process is certainly far from unusual among academic publishers and service providers. Elsevier arguably provides the most egregious example, and as Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe notes, their pattern of recent acquisitions belies an apparent goal of creating a vertical stack service model for publication services.
In considering what Elsevier is doing, it is unsurprising—from a business standpoint—for Ex Libris and ProQuest to pursue profits in a similar manner. That said, we should bear in mind that libraries are already losing control over open access as a consequence of the general strategy that Elsevier is employing. Esploro will likely benefit from having strong library development partners and “open” customer feedback, but the potential end result could place its customers in a more financially disadvantageous and less autonomous position. This is simply antithetical to open access.
Over the past few years, Ex Libris has done well not just in their product development, but also their customer support. Making the Knowledge Center “open to all” in late 2015 was a very positive step forward. Yet the company’s decision to orangewash through claiming support for open access as part of a product unveiling still warrants critique. Peter Suber reminds us that open access is a “revolutionary kind of access”—one that is “unencumbered by a motive of financial gain.” While Ex Libris can perhaps talk about openness with a little more credibility than their competitors, their bottom line is still what really matters.