Research universities have developed in symbiosis with a robust set of commercial providers that serve their needs. From food service providers to run dining halls to private equity firms to manage parts of the endowment, outsourcing has allowed universities to remain more focused on their core educational and research functions. But universities have also at times elected to outsource academic infrastructure. Commercial firms have developed a major role in several significant university functions, including scientific publishing, library management systems, and course management systems. And in all three cases, the commercial priorities of vendors have at times left academia frustrated. While outsourcing is not uniformly good or bad, services with a principally academic market seem to be especially susceptible to monopoly or oligopoly dynamics among commercial providers.
Today, an entirely new class of tools and platforms is developing that stands to revolutionize scientific research in academia. These research workflow tools will variously improve transparency, reproducibility, accountability, and efficiency of the scientific research process, an enormous boon to scientists themselves and their universities that have so much invested in academic science. But in assessing and adopting these valuable new research workflow tools, research universities once again face key questions about whether and under what circumstances to outsource core scholarly infrastructure with a principally academic market.