(Not-)for-profit in research

In response to the European Council, I need to get a new pet peeve of mine off my chest.

(Not-)for-profit in research
Photo by Christian Lue / Unsplash

I admittedly love it when pet peeves show themselves. That's when I know something is tickling my brain repeatedly and it wants to come out. Last time I shared my pet peeves on peer review, but my new pet peeve: Not-for-profit is a quick and dirty proxy for the values that we want in open science, but it is not necessary or sufficient to ensure those values.

It started tickling me on the heels of the latest European Council statement on Open Science.

the Council calls on the Commission and the member states to support policies towards a scholarly publishing model that is not-for-profit, open access and multi-format, with no costs for authors or readers.

“Not-for-profit” is named many times in the statement, highlighting that EU Member States will prefer those publishing models over for-profit models. Ten (library) associations immediately endorsed the council statement and its development of a “publicly owned, not-for-profit scholarly communication ecosystem.” The Council statement again builds on the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science (2021), which calls for non-commercial open science infrastructures. A practical result of non-commercial in the dialogue like this is, for example, that the German Open Access Days only allows non-commercial open-source software to present their work at the conference.

So why is "not-for-profit" and "non-commercial" a pet peeve of mine?

First off, the condition of “not-for-profit” is not sufficient for open science because even those entities can hold values we do not want. Technically, the Koch Foundation would be allowed to set up a not-for-profit publishing model, but a for-profit scholar cooperative would not. Yet, we can sense here that we would prefer the for-profit (scholar cooperative) over the not-for-profit (Koch Foundation).[1] As such, what is it about the idea of not-for-profits that we are valuing, really? It is not the essence of a not-for-profit.

Secondly, “not-for-profit” models are not necessary to make immediate open access possible at reasonable prices. Of course a lot of big for-profit actors are extracting too much profit (35% margins!) — I don’t contest that. Equating all for-profit actors however, from small- medium enterprises to huge conglomerates, is not doing justice to the diversity of the different business models. What matters is what values the business models manifest (see point 1) and how these entities are governed.

We cannot want new business models on one hand (no more APCs!) and then punish people for deciding to run a business instead of a foundation when creating business models.

Profit driven shareholders are problematic, but what about purpose driven for-profits, with steward ownership? What about for-profits with scholar-led governance councils? What about for-profits owned by institutions themselves?[2]

The hard truth: There are no (absolute) guarantees, for neither of them. Profit status is a bad proxy for the values we want. For-profits can be corrupted, a not-for-profit's governing board can be filled with cronies of the foundation’s major donors.

Finally, starting any new publishing model with open values is difficult. Not-for-profits have the option of grant funding to get them on their way. For-profits are often ineligible for grant-funding.[3] As a result, for-profits often need to turn to investment capital, in exchange for shares. This introduces profit driven shares, which exactly creates the problem of for-profit driven models we are trying to prevent! Focusing solely on not-for-profits exacerbates this issue as it drives for-profits to investment capital.[4]

Currently, a lot about the “not-for-profit” versus “for-profit” proxy remains implied. I recommend we work on making these values explicit in our discourse. I want generative models, not exploitative models, regardless of their profit motives. I want equitable models, regardless of their profit motives. Stereotyping based on their profit status is not going to help articulate our values for us.

What are the implied values of not-for-profit for you?

  1. Not-for-profits are problematic on so many levels. Examples include millionaires starting a foundation, simply to mitigate their taxable income and to maximize spending on what they value. ↩︎

  2. Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press being great examples of where this can go wrong. ↩︎

  3. If for-profits can get grant funding, it is really difficult to account for as businesses technically have to deliver services. If they don't need to deliver services, revenue is considered 100% profit under tax law, reducing the grant by around 30% in the case of German law. ↩︎

  4. One option to support for-profits in the open space, would be to provide low interest and long-term loans. This would allow those models to prove themselves. ↩︎