SciELO, Open Infrastructure and Independence

By Leslie Chan

Image: dooder.

The Open Access movement was founded on the aspiration that the decentralized and open nature of the Internet architecture, coupled with the ethos of knowledge sharing, would begin to redress the asymmetry in the power structure and hierarchies of the World Scientific Publishing System. This was thought to be possible as institutions and academics from around the world would be able to produce and circulate knowledge freely without the mediation of legacy publishing outlets. For scientific publishing from the periphery, this means not only bypassing the cost and permission barriers imposed by traditional publishing, but also the gatekeeping power of commercial publishers, which have been driven by market logic rather than intellectual concerns.

Two decades ago, Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) was developed from Brazil as a way to increase visibility and access to their national scientific literature. SciELO demonstrated to the world that open access was possible for journals produced locally and regionally. The distributed publishing platform, over time, increased the visibility and discoverability of scientific research produced in Brazil and fourteen other countries that became part of the growing SciELO network. At the same time, the platform has become an important source of bibliometrics and citation data, while enhancing the quality of the journals that have been able to take part in the portal. More importantly, SciELO has been a shining example of a government agency’s (FAPESP in the State of Sao Paulo) foresight in understanding that publicly supported infrastructure is crucial to the growth and vibrancy of locally generated research that may have limited international appeal and circulation. This has had significant influence on other countries around the world.

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of SciELO, it is timely to reflect on the achievements and also challenges remaining. Journals in the SciELO system are free from permission and price barriers, and a good portion of the database is now indexed in the Web of Science and Scopus from which they were previously excluded. But an important question remains: has SciELO redrawn the unipolar and northern-centric nature of the global publishing system, enabling a multi-polar intellectual and linguistic diversity to flourish, or has SciELO itself being redrawn in the image of the global north?

It is telling that two key strategies of SciELO going forward are “professionalization – to produce state of the art journals” and “internationalization- insertion into the global flow of scientific information”1. To achieve these, SciELO is working more closely with ScholarOne, a proprietary system for manuscript submission and peer review management that is used by many journals from around the world. Using a system streamlined by ScholarOne for SciELO journals, editors are better able to manage the growing volume of submissions, and follow “international standards” and “best practices” to ensure “quality” and “interoperability”. Of course this is also to ensure that the journals will be indexed by the Web of Science, which is also owned by the same company that owns ScholarOne.

In effect, there is the not so tacit admission that in order for journals in the SciELO system to be seen as valid internationally, they will have to be measured by the yardsticks and standards produced by a commercial firms from the global North. According to Packer2, one of the founders of SciELO, such developments will “help improve the openness of science and introduce a competitive and innovation-based publication market. So, beyond making papers freely available, better and more sustainable open access publication models need to evolve. This is the true spirit of open science.”

But in order to support the spirit of open science, we need to think beyond the confines of the genre of the academic journal and the narrow set of standards and quality markers designed and controlled by profit driven entities. Given that open science is about opening up the entire research life cycle, there is a need to think about enabling infrastructure for data and diverse forms of outputs and processes. In particular, there needs to be more thought given to keeping infrastructure open and public. As Bilder, et al3 succinctly put it, “Everything we have gained by opening content and data will be under threat if we allow the enclosure of scholarly infrastructures.” Indeed by grafting openness onto the existing proprietary structures, the powerful and resourceful entities that are already in place are at a far better position to exploit the system. It is a classic case of empowering the already powerful.

I worry that the internationalization strategy as envisioned by SciELO will instead lead to a loss of independence, as the content will be increasingly locked-in by the same global system of validation, controlled by an increasingly small number of corporate players from the global North. It is worth nothing that ScholarOne is owned by Clarivate Analytics, who arquired this platform along with the Journal Citation Report and the Journal Impact Factors from Thomson Reuter in 2016. Clarivate is in turn owned by a pair of private-equity funds, which had no previous interest in academic publishing. Venture capitalists are in this primarily for the profit. Clearly they see a huge opportunity in the data analytics market of extracting academic and institutional research activities in the increasingly competitive global knowledge economy.

By controlling both the workflow (e.g. article submissions, co-authorship, peer review network, subject areas) and the analytics (institutional affiliations, fundings, citation data, etc.), companies like Clarivate are able to take advantage of the power of the network to centralize intellectual assets and to increase their network effects. They are doing so by transforming themselves from “content” providers to end-to-end platforms: commercial services that provide the infrastructure and applications that are increasingly the foundation of knowledge production and circulation. Given this trend, it was not surprising that Elsevier, one of the most well-known commercial publishers, has rebranded itself as a “global information analytics business”4 instead of a content provider. To compete with Clarivate, Elsevier has recently purchased Aries, a widely used workflow system which is a main rival of ScholarOne. These companies are competing to control the “flow of attention”5, which is now the main currency and means of monetization in an increasingly platform based economy.

What we are seeing is a powerful example of “platform capitalism”6, which is enabling legacy multinational publishers and new players from the global North to concentrate and consolidate their control of the sites of knowledge validation and distribution. The big players with deep pockets have been systematically acquiring not only other journals, but also the tools and infrastructure that academics and universities are increasingly dependent upon for knowledge production, circulation and validation. These “platform” infrastructures are serving to aggregate and mine the analytics of research productivity and innovation of institutions based on input into journals and other digital outlets such as data repositories and research management systems. These analytics, packaged as “research intelligence”, are then sold back to universities as metrics for determining credit and resource allocation, and to feed their appetite for global university rankings, which are increasingly necessary for international student recruitment and for securing research funding and international collaboration. In effect, the governance of scholarship is increasingly falling into the hands of the private sector controlling the analytics, and open access and open science are providing a welcome stream of raw resources.

This is a worrying trend, and it doesn’t speak well for the independence and decentralization of science and scholarly publishing. So are open access initiatives from around the world, such as the highly respected SciELO, being co-opted into a global system of data extraction and surveillance of academic intelligence? Should initiatives like SciELO be investing in support for open infrastructure instead of enriching private businesses? On the 20th anniversary of SciELO, we should pause and reflect on what we may be giving up in the name of “professionalization” and “internationalization”, and question who gets to set standards, for whom, and to what end. We should deliberate on how best to move forward on collective actions for open access to ensure the development and sustainability of open and independent infrastructures that enable diverse forms of scholarship to flourish, while safeguarding our collective labour from surveillance and commercial exploitation.

This post was originally developed and presented as part of a panel on “The political and social impact of journals and the research they communicate” at the SciELO 20 Years Conference.

I would like to thank Sarita Albagli, Angela Okune, and Juan Pablo Alperin for comments on an earlier draft of this post.


1. MENDONÇA, A. SciELO Brazil: Professionalization and Internationalization and the Contribution of ScholarOne [online]. Clarivate Analytics. 2016 [viewed 3 September 2018]. Available from:

2. RAJAGOPALAN, J. Taking open access one step further: The role of SciELO in the global publication landscape [online]. Editage Insights. 2015 [viewed 3 September 2018]. Available from:

3. BILDER, G., LIN, J. AND NEYLON, C. Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructures-v1 [online].Figshare. 2015 [viewed 3 September 2018]. Available from:

4. VAN LOON, R. RELX Group: The Transformation to a Leading Global Information & Analytics Company [online]. Ronald Van Loons. 2017 [viewed 3 September 2018]. Available from:

5. TUFEKCI, Z. How social media took us from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump [online]. MIT Technology Review. 2018 [viewed 3 September 2018]. Available from:

6. SRNICEK, N. Platform Capitalism. Cambridge and Malden: Polity, 2016


BILDER, G., LIN, J. AND NEYLON, C. Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructures-v1 [online]. Figshare. 2015 [viewed 3 September 2018]. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1314859.v1. Available from:

BUTLER, D. ‘Web of Science’ to be sold to private-equity firms [online]. Nature News. 2016 [viewed 3 September 2018]. DOI: 10.1038/nature.2016.20255. Available from:

CZERNIEWICZ, L. This map of the world’s scientific research is disturbingly unequal [online]. Quartz. 2018 [viewed 3 September 2018]. Available from:

MENDONÇA, A. SciELO Brazil: Professionalization and Internationalization and the Contribution of ScholarOne [online]. Clarivate Analytics. 2016 [viewed 3 September 2018]. Available from:

POSADA, A. and CHEN, G. Inequality in Knowledge Production: The Integration of Academic Infrastructure by Big Publishers [online]. Archive ouverte HAL. 2018 [viewed 3 September 2018]. DOI: 10.4000/proceedings.elpub.2018.30. Available from:

POSADA, A. AND CHEN, G. Publishers increasingly in control of scholarly infrastructure and this is why we should care [online]. The Knowledge G.A.P. blog. 2017 [viewed 3 September 2018]. Available from:

RAJAGOPALAN, J. Taking open access one step further: The role of SciELO in the global publication landscape [online]. Editage Insights. 2015 [viewed 3 September 2018]. Available from:

RELLER, T. Elsevier to acquire Aries Systems, a best-in-class publication workflow solutions provider [online]. Elsevier. 2018 [viewed 3 September 2018]. Available from:

SCHONFELD, R. Workflow Lock-in: A Taxonomy [online]. Scholarly Kitchen. 2018 [viewed 3 September 2018]. Available from:

SRNICEK, N. Platform Capitalism. Cambridge and Malden: Polity, 2016.

TUFEKCI, Z. How social media took us from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump [online]. MIT Technology Review. 2018 [viewed 3 September 2018]. Available from:


About Leslie Chan

Leslie Chan is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Critical Development Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough. As one of the original signatories of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, Leslie has been active in the experimentation and implementation of scholarly communication initiatives of varying scales around the world, with the goal of understanding open access for knowledge equity and inclusive development. The director of Bioline International since 2000, he was the principal investigator of the Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network (2014-2017) (, which received the SPARC Innovator Award in 2018. Leslie was also the co-chair of the 22nd International Conference on Electronic Publishing in 2018, with a focus on community based sustainable infrastructure.


Como citar este post [ISO 690/2010]:

CHAN, L. SciELO, Open Infrastructure and Independence [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2018 [viewed ]. Available from:


3 Thoughts on “SciELO, Open Infrastructure and Independence

  1. Pingback: Blog Post: “SciELO, Open Infrastructure and Independence” | LJ infoDOCKET

  2. Pingback: OCSDNET

  3. Pingback: Decolonizing scholarly data and publishing infrastructures | OCSDNET

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation