In 2012 serial entrepreneurfounded a new company called Knowledge Unlatched ( ). The goal, she in 2013, was to “change the way we fund the publishing of quality content” for book-length publications, and in a way that would allow them to be made open access.
With that end in mind, Pinter launched a pilot project in which research libraries were invited to pool money to fund the “fixed costs” of publishing monographs. By doing so, Pinter reasoned, PDF and HTML versions of these “unlatched” books could be made freely available on the Web, but print and other premium versions would continue to be sold in the traditional manner. And those libraries that contributed to the pool would earn the right to buy the premium versions at a discounted price.
In a spirit of civic-mindedness Pinter created Knowledge Unlatched as a UK non-profit Community Interest Company (). And with Pinter’s formidable reputation as a publisher, KU quickly acquired mindshare and influence, and went on to play an important role in the thinking about the scope and opportunities for OA monographs, as well as in policy development – both in the UK and globally.
Above all, says Pinter below, KU went on to provide proof of concept for a new way of funding OA monographs, and perhaps of funding OA more generally.
When that funding ended, however, as a non-profit CIC, KU struggled to raise further funds or capital. And with few assets to offer as collateral, commercial loans were equally hard to come by. Consequently, it was not immediately clear how KU could become financially sustainable, or even whether it could. Faced with this truth, says Pinter, she was minded to call it day.
Supporters, however, were urging her to continue and so Pinter drew down a six-figure sum from her pension savings and, with some additional funding from Australia’s Curtin University, she proceeded to a second pilot round. This saw increased support from publishers and a larger number of books offered for unlatching. But while this was encouraging, the sustainability issue had not gone away.
At this point, Pinter was approached by former De Gruyter CEO Sven Fund and invited to sell some of KU’s assets. She agreed, and Fund acquired the bulk of KU.
As a result, KU was transformed from a UK non-profit CIC to a for-profit GmbH based in Berlin, and KU is now owned by another Sven Fund for-profit company called.
After acquiring KU, Sven Fund moved quickly to develop and launch a raft of new products and initiatives, including a, and . The latter is a platform designed to act as a broker between research institutions, publishers, and authors who want to make their monographs OA.
However, KU’s change of status and its more aggressive stance in the marketplace has attracted criticism from the research community. This came to a head last month when former KU employee Marcel Knöchelmann published aon the in which he complained that KU had undergone a process of silent commercialisation. He also suggested that the decision by UK funder to KU parent fullstopp to undertake a survey of the OA monograph landscape raised conflict of interest issues.
The problem, he said, is that “The parent company of the commercial entity which stands to profit from a future of open access book publishing is advising on what the future of open access book publishing in the UK should be”.
In a separatetwo days later the Director of Open Book Publishers complained that KU was insisting that those publishers who use the KU Open Funding platform must sign an exclusive contract.
As a result, said Gatti, OBP would not be participating in KU Open Funding. “These types of exclusivity contracts can be used by digital ‘platforms’ as a strategy to monopolise and dominate an industry.”
Other OA monograph publishers have indicated that they too plan to boycott the KU Open Funding platform, including members of theconsortium of academic-led, not-for-profit, open access book publishers.
In response, KU has agreed to cease insisting on exclusive contracts and Research England and fullstopp have said that both the survey questions and (some of ) the responses fullstopp receives to that survey will be made publicly available (more from Research England here).
Nevertheless, it is not clear that critics are yet convinced that KU’s business model is the right one. Nor have they come to terms with its new for-profit status. “I feel crowdfunding from libraries to unlock back- and front-list titles merely funnels more money to conventional academic publishers, who don’t have to change their broken business models at all,”of non-profit told me on Twitter. “In other words, it’s not a transformative approach to OA and it keeps broken systems in place.”
She added, “We don’t want to see too many for-profit ‘middlemen’ between publishers and librarians. We want to build partnerships with libraries (and have already done that; e.g. punctum just inaugurated a two-year pilot partnership with UCSB Library at UC Santa Barbara).”
Eileen Joy concludes: “We are also troubled by the transfer of KU from a non-profit directed by Frances Pinter to a for-profit directed by Sven Fund in Berlin. Does anyone know anything about the details of that transaction / hand-over? Did Sven Fund buy KU from Pinter and for how much? What is her role now? Isn’t Fund a venture capitalist? Does he really have a commitment to the long-term health of a more equitable ecosystem for OA and scholarly communications or is KU a business venture for him?”
Hopefully, the interview below with Pinter (and what I have said above) will go some way to answering these questions.