The Public Knowledge Project (PKP) has been a cornerstone of the open access world since John Willinsky and his colleagues created it in the late 1990s. Open Journal Systems, the open source software that PKP first launched in 2001, has permitted thousands of users in over one hundred countries to produce scholarly journals using the freely available software. Today, Open Journal Systems software, or OJS, is used to publish over 10,000 journals worldwide, the vast majority of them open access.
To support this work, PKP has successfully assembled a reliable combination of grants, donations, revenues from PKP Publishing Services, and in-kind support in addition to strong partnerships from both Stanford and Simon Fraser University, where the PKP is part of the SFU Libraries. And yet, the leadership team recognized that the landscape had started to change and that there are competitors emerging. While there are many ways PKP would like to expand their role in supporting open access, their team is very small and already working well beyond capacity. To grow as quickly as their users need them to, PKP’s directors realized they would need to take more active steps to permit them to build PKP in a way that supports their ongoing operations, while continuing to invest in ways that help them evolve to support the changing needs of their users.
In 2017, the PKP team received generous support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, in the form of a planning grant to support research to develop a pathway to sustainability and greater support for open access. The directors engaged research and consulting firm BlueSky to BluePrint to work with them to examine the world in which PKP operates today, as well as the PKP team’s internal structure, and to begin to map out a plan for the future. The planning grant took place over the course of 6 months, from October 2017 through March 2018, and featured at its core a “community consultation,” designed to bring in a wide range of voices to inform PKP’s next steps.
A Community Consultation
The community consultation offered a range of ways for the PKP team to hear from and interact with the communities it serves. This phase included:
- Creation of an Expert Advisory Panel representing those with deep knowledge in issues concerning open access publishing, open source development, and the competitive space in which PKP operates.
- Interviews with 50 individuals, both experts in the field and those who interact directly with PKP and its software: current OJS users from different institutional settings; current and former PKP Publishing Services clients; and some who had engaged in some way with OJS, but had ultimately chosen an alternative.
- Conference presentations offering background on PKP and progress reports on the grant, including at the Charleston Library conference in November 2017 and the CNI Fall Membership Meeting in December 2017.
- Development and publication of a summary report to be issued by PKP’s directors, outlining future directions and seeking public input on these ideas.
In addition, the PKP Directors will be sharing the vision they have developed at a range of meetings taking place throughout Spring 2018, including OPERAS, CNI Spring Membership Meeting, the Library Publishing Forum, and ELPUB 2018: International Conference on Electronic Publishing.
The interviews with experts, current and former users of OJS and its competitors, and current and former clients of PKP Publishing Services offered a sense of current strengths and weaknesses of PKP and its offerings, and opportunities for future directions.
Among the strengths noted were:
- A deep appreciation, respect, and support for PKP’s leaders and mission.
- Many interviewees voiced appreciation for PKP’s founders, directors, and staffers.
- The value of PKP’s open source software.
- There are many, both in technology and librarian roles, who feel strongly about supporting community-based efforts, when possible.
- OJS, largely because it is open source, is economically feasible for many institutions that cannot afford commercial alternatives, but who have staff for a basic level of support.
- There was praise for the flexibility of OJS to suit a range of needs, in general, and appreciation for some elements in particular: the peer review piece of OJS, for example, was often cited as being a real value, something difficult to do well.
- A huge base of global users in over 100 countries around the world.
- Recognition of the opportunities that OJS and the PKP afford many researchers outside the US and Canada, and specifically in the Global South.
But the research also pointed out several challenges or areas the PKP team will need to address:
- Frustration with OJS and its pace of innovation.
- A lingering perception that OJS is dated in appearance and not able to support certain types of media. Some of these perceptions may no longer reflect the offerings of OJS3, the perceptions alone are sufficient cause for concern.
- Slow migration of users of earlier releases (OJS2) to the new OJS3 which could ultimately alleviate many of these critiques.
- Low of awareness of PKP’s full range of offerings.
- Several interviewees were not aware that PKP offers Publishing Services, and for a fee can customize, host, and otherwise support OJS.
- Many were unaware of other open source offerings and services from PKP
- Those who were aware of OJS were often unaware that it is fully compatible with a range of types of publishing, and can support fee-based, as well as open access models; multi-journal as well as single-journal publishers.
- Perception of a fairly “closed” open source project.
- Some felt that PKP did not actively encourage code contributions from the community.
- Some past and potential partners noted challenges in seeing collaborations come to fruition.
There are some key takeaways from the research that suggest some very specific directions, as the PKP team determines its best approach to ongoing financial support and growth.
- Becoming user-focused.
- PKP as a team will need to take a more proactive approach to managing its relationships with users, clients, and stakeholders of all types. In the open source space, this may mean public outreach, to educate potential clients and users about what OJS can do for them, and to incentivize code contributions. In the Publishing Services space, this quite literally means developing a robust sales and marketing strategy.
- Embracing the community and key partners, even more.
- Open Source software development, at the heart of the PKP enterprise, needs to be “opened up” more than it currently is, to make better use of contributions of all sorts – whether feedback from users (authors, publishing managers, editors), from programmers, and from leaders of other organizations.
- Strategic partnerships need to be strengthened. Whether they yield financial or in-kind support, they will require more focused attention than they have received in the past.
- Rethinking the organizational structure to support growth in both the open source and services space.
- PKP will need to institute a new organizational structure, that understands three types of activities that are distinct, if closely related: software development; publishing services around that software; and community outreach, education, and research. Those three “pillars” – software, services, and outreach/education/research can and should be seen as mutually reinforcing: for example, the research undertaken ought to provide value to PKP’s software users, and ideally to inform the future development paths of PKP software; the client work of publishing services can be prioritized to support the development of the main OJS code base, so that all open source users can benefit, as well.
This report represents the findings from the landscape and audience research conducted, and will be used as the basis of extended discussion with the PKP team and its advisors, as a means to develop plans for its further growth. The full planning grant includes a financial analysis of the current PKP organization and PKP Publishing Services in particular; that is not part of this initial report. The recommendations here are intended as thought provoking, and represent the opinion of the report’s author. PKP’s Public Report, Reflections and Directions After PKP’s First Two Decades, represents the chosen path of the PKP team and is available online at https://pkp.sfu.ca/reflections-and-directions-2018/.
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