Ten Years of Knowledge Unlatched, and What’s Next for Open Access

In News by Hannah Johnson

At this 10-year milestone for Knowledge Unlatched, Sven Fund talks about what’s next for the company and open access.

Knowledge Unlatched in 2023 marks 10 years of open-access work. Image: Knowledge Unlatched

By Hannah Johnson | @HannahSJohnson

Crowdfunding Open Access at Knowledge Unlatched
This year, Knowledge Unlatched is marking 10 years of work to make scholarly and academic content available under open access. Senior director Sven Fund says the company has remained prominent in this fundamental business-model shift in scholarly and academic publishing through “continuous innovation and adaption.”

In May, Knowledge Unlatched reported that in the last decade, it has supported the open-access publication of more than 4,000 scholarly books and 50 journals in the fields of humanities, sciences, and social sciences—and there are more on the horizon.

Open access publishing, in which content is made freely available, has compelled publishers, researchers, and librarians to collaborate and find alternative ways to fund publications, as opposed to the more traditional business model of paying for access to content.

Working in what was—and still is—a “fragmented marketplace,” Fund said in a 2017 interview with Tom Gilson and Katrina Strauch in Against the Grain that Knowledge Unlatched “set out to create the missing link between the many initiatives and publishers that want to publish open-access and the institutions that are willing to support it financially.”

That missing link between various institutions, and one of the reasons behind of Knowledge Unlatched’s success, is its unique approach to open access: crowdfunding. Knowledge Unlatched’s crowdfunding model is called KU Select. On an annual basis, Knowledge Unlatched releases a librarian-curated selection of relevant academic books and journals, and libraries then pledge funding that enables this content to be published under open access.

According to information on the Knowledge Unlatched website, “The costs of investing in Knowledge Unlatched collections are less than the costs if all institutions were to purchase the content in traditional forms.”

The current 10th round of KU Select funding now is open through November 2023, and the selection of titles is aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which the company says, “allows libraries to invest in highly sought-after open-access scholarly content directly impacting society and the planet.”

Knowledge Unlatched was founded by Frances Pinter in 2013 and acquired by Fund in 2016. Having held positions in publishing and academia including being CEO of De Gruyter, Fund says that he believed in Knowledge Unlatched’s mission and business model. He didn’t start drawing a salary from Knowledge Unlatched until the company was acquired by Wiley in 2021.

Publishing Perspectives has spoken with Fund about this 10-year milestone for Knowledge Unlatched, and about his view of what’s next for the company and for open access.

Sven Fund: 10 Years of Knowledge Unlatched

Sven Fund, senior director of Knowledge Unlatched, at Klopotek’s Publishers’ Forum 2019 in Berlin. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Publishing Perspectives: Open access has changed the academic publishing industry since Knowledge Unlatched was launched 2013. What are the current issues around open access that the industry is facing, and what’s on the horizon?

Sven Fund: Indeed, open access has come a long way. About 50 percent of all present journal articles published are open in one form or another now. However, these developments have been largely limited to journals, while monographs still lag far behind. We’ve more recently begun to see a trend toward experimentation by a larger number of book publishers, including university presses.

As with any fundamental change from one business model to another, the challenges become apparent about halfway – that’s now. Increasingly, cost per article or cost per chapter are on publishers’ minds right now, and together with increased sensitivity to publishing integrity, they will dominate both entrepreneurial and academic decisions.

Continuous innovation and adaption have always been key for us at Knowledge Unlatched. Right now, we are looking into ways to make our collections more inclusive to readers and researchers around the globe. For example, we are working to spread the word about the books we are making open in Africa and Latin America. We are also retaining about 10 percent of frontlist titles in our flagship collection, KU Select, for independent and early-career scholars with limited or no access to funding. And this year, for the first time, we are aligning KU Select, the anniversary product, to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and focusing on frontlist, never-before-published titles only.

Publishing Perspectives: You purchased Knowledge Unlatched from its founder, Frances Pinter, in 2016. What was it about this company that you believed in?

Fund: Frances and her team had done remarkable work identifying a gap in the publishing ecosystem at the time. Knowledge Unlatched was an international coalition of libraries and publishers willing to fund open access beyond journals, which is just genius. We could also demonstrate that this mechanism could be extended to services, other media types such as scholarly videos and blogs, and also models like subscribe-to-open.

So, I believed in the mechanism, but first and foremost, I believed in the team—then and now.

Publishing Perspectives: In 2021, Knowledge Unlatched was acquired by Wiley. How has that acquisition boosted the company’s capabilities so far, and what are you looking forward to?

Fund: Open access is great for making content more available, but it’s also complicated. Therefore, in 2020 we decided to develop Oable together with librarians as a workflow solution that helps libraries to manage all of their open-access journal article transactions in one place. From the early days, Oable was much-liked. We understood that making this solution available worldwide would require a lot of work and a strong partner. In this respect, Wiley is the perfect partner with an international sales force and necessary resources. We look forward to rolling out Oable and continuing the journey that has made Oable so successful until today and co-creating a world-class solution with the library community.

Publishing Perspectives: This year, the KU Select collection is aligned around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Why did you make this change and how are publishers and libraries responding?

Fund: Indeed, this is exciting, as I briefly mentioned before. The Knowledge Unlatched team deeply cares about a better planet and society, and we’ve made a lot of commitments to align with that goal. We felt that pushing our commitment to promoting the SDGs further than in previous years was the next step. Our SDG journey actually began two years ago when we first introduced a “focus” collection on climate change, which exceeded our expectations and received more support from libraries than we anticipated at the time.

This year, we were positively surprised that participating publishers embraced the idea and also that early pledging libraries reacted enthusiastically to this change. To me, doing good and right while being customer-oriented and pragmatic is really important. We’ll see in a few months, at the end of the pledging cycle, whether we achieved something tangible here.

Publishing Perspectives: What else do you want our readers to know about Knowledge Unlatched, open access, or the next steps in this developing field?

Fund: I’m sure we’ll continue to see a lot of diversity in open-access business models, simply because publishing is so diverse itself. As part of Wiley’s Partner Solutions business, we are dedicated to helping all our customers navigate the transition to open research and to delivering a better researcher experience. In particular, through Oable, we help our partners compete in an article-based economy.


More from Publishing Perspectives on academic and scholarly publishing is here, more from us on Knowledge Unlatched is here, more from us on sustainability in publishing is here, and more from us on open access is here.

About the Author

Hannah Johnson

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Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.