SCA/Ithaka sustainability study: New York session notes

On 8 May the SCA and Ithaka met in New York for a workshop held to discuss Ithaka’s paper on sustainability of online academic resources (a parallel event had been held in Lon in April, details here).

Kevin Guthrie

Below, and attached as a Word document, are Kevin Guthrie’s notes on some of the main themes that arose during the session. It includes a list of next steps that were identified for research or concrete measures that would advance sustainability.

We welcome your feedback on the recommendations as well as the notes, especially your sense of what possibilities strike you as having the highest priority. Over the coming weeks, we will be following up to assess what Ithaka and other organisations might do to act on these ideas. Thanks in advance for any input you can provide.

Notes from SCA/Ithaka NewYork workshop by Kevin Guthrie

Kevin Guthrie and Stuart Dempster
Kevin Guthrie of Ithaka and Stuart Dempster of the SCA in New York

The meeting commenced with a round of introductions, during which each participant identified particular topics of interest from the Ithaka paper. The subsequent discussion focused on whether participants agreed with the need for mindset changes, as outlined in the paper, and, if so, what should be done to bring these changes about. The discussion also focused on the broader question of what further work could be done to help OARs pursue sustainability. Following are some of the major themes that emerged during the large group and small group discussions:

The mindset question: While most participants agreed that adopting new mindsets is critical to implementing the suggestions in the report, some voiced concerns about how difficult a task this would be. As someone stated, “It may be easier to change people than to change mindsets.” Some suggestions as to how this could be addressed included:

  • Providing project leaders with training (eg university seminar on the “culture of business”) and access to resources in business planning, such as a “bookshelf” of core texts to read on business concepts and sample contracts, P&L worksheets, etc.
  • Seeking project leaders with different skill sets and experience.
  • Introducing a “publishing-style” system for projects, where one member of the leadership team takes responsibility for the scholarly impact of the project (the equivalent of a lead editor, and another member is responsible for the business strategy and implementation.
  • Further examining other places where mindsets may be hindering sustainability: at the university administration level, where project leaders may not be getting the time/support they require to run the projects; and at the funding level, where fixed commitments may hinder experimentation.

Scale: A great deal of the discussion focused on the need for scale among digital enterprises. The small size of many projects may be insufficient to carry costs for “back office” tasks like legal, accounting, and marketing services; some could or should consider “rolling up” into larger organizations or collaborating. This is happening to some extent in the UK, where JISC is pursuing convergence and encouraging federated repositories through the Strategic Content Alliance. Next steps would involve:

  • Investigating models for public/private collaborations.
  • Exploring possibilities for building scale at different levels: some spoke about university campuses as the place where this is happening now (examples included University of Nebraska and Michigan).
  • Exploring the possibility for creating a “neutral third party” that could transcend the campus level.
  • Creating an advertising network for OARs that would aggregate and package audiences in ways that appeal to companies while protecting these sites from unwanted advertisements.

Revenue generation: The group touched on the tension between needing to seek out new ways to generate revenue while preserving academic values. Some next steps identified to understand and address this tension included:

  • Identifying and completing a variety of detailed case studies of OARs from the U.S. and U.K. (those that have succeeded as well as those that have failed).
  • Commissioning a study of scholars’ attitudes towards advertising. Examine the example of Public Broadcasting
  • Examining how the model of “technology transfer” within the university could be applied to digital projects in the humanities.
  • Further focusing attention on the sustainability options for Open Access projects, such as contributor pays models.
  • Further exploring instances of social networking (web 2.0) and how user contributed content can help offset costs and generate revenue.
  • Further developing the revenue part of the paper to show, via detailed case studies, how revenue models function in real projects, including examples of “hybrid” approaches which incorporate several of the models.

Measurement/quantification: Several contributions to the discussion touched on the need to develop ways to measure and quantify aspects of OAR projects, particularly costs and impact. While some industries have accepted norms for measuring success, profitability, or other means of judging how a project is faring, many OARs have not adopted methods for measuring their own progress, nor do they have industry benchmarks to tell them how they compare to other similar ventures. Among the suggestions advanced to improve this situation were:

  • Cost Matrix: Develop model showing what costs are for digital projects at the different stages of the lifecycle: R&D, startup, and ongoing operational costs.
  • Develop tools to help OAR leaders make financial decisions: In publishing, the “profit/loss” analysis that must be approved before a book is signed provides a framework for cost and revenue expectations on new projects. No such set of guidelines currently exist to help OARs evaluate new projects.
  • Measuring impact: How many people are coming to use the site? How do they use it? How deeply do they engage with the materials there? What impact is the resource having on scholarship? While there is some fear of hearing bad news from an assessment like this, people agreed that OARs would benefit from thinking about how to measure impact, both for their own strategic planning, and in order to express their impact to funders and other potential business partners. And since there is no one right answer for which metrics are most valuable to whom, academic projects may want to develop these criteria themselves, before advertisers do it for them.
  • Measuring progress towards fulfilling the mission: How do projects assess their success in fulfilling their mission? How can we ensure that non-profit leaders are focused on sustaining the mission rather than sustaining the organization?

Information sharing throughout the community: The need to better share knowledge throughout the community and to incorporate lessons learned, both from other OARs and from the commercial business world, came up several times. The individual projects need to know more about what similar projects are trying, and where they are succeeding and failing. Some suggestions included:

  • Setting up a wiki, so that OARs could input information about themselves and research information about other similar projects to gain more points of reference.
  • Developing ways to bring business ideas into the discussion in a number of ways: for example, by inviting business leaders and thinkers to sessions with OAR leaders, or by sponsoring a course at a business school that would focus on the business of digital projects.

Lifecycle: Several participants elaborated on the theme of understanding OARs’ needs at different points in their lifecycle. Some of the issues raised in the meeting and breakout sessions included:

  • Finding ways to differentiate among those projects that are intended (and should be funded) as “experiments” as opposed to those expected to sustain themselves for the long term.
  • Determining the “point of maturity” of a project – the point at which it might be reasonable to plan for sustainability.
  • Examine as a model the literature on the Information Systems development lifecycle: from research, to development, to steady-state operations. Each stage requires a different sort and intensity of managerial attention.

Next Steps: A number of ideas for advancing sustainability of OARs emerged from the discussion.

Next steps for extending the original study in terms of research or guidelines:

1) Expand, deepen, and refine the matrix of projects/revenue models. Add case studies, including Open Access examples.

2) Create a cost matrix model for OARs that spans the project lifecycle from R&D through start up to ongoing operation.

3) Include new section on partnership models.

Initiatives that would entail either new projects or the creation of new services:

1) Create a leadership institute to support *non-profit sustainability.* This institute would address issues including strategic thinking, organizational design and development, business planning and modeling, governance, leadership, and marketing from a mission-centered, sustainability-directed perspective. A variety of activities, including a “curriculum” of readings, leadership seminars and workshops, mentoring, executive coaching, and participation in a peer community, would provide professional development and support to leaders of projects at various stages of sustainability.

2) Create information-sharing programs including the development of a database of OAR projects that is regularly updated, and the sponsorship of an annual meeting where leaders of projects can come together and share success and failure stories, best practices, etc.

3) Develop a new project to explore institutional support mechanisms for OARs. Convene several meetings of provosts, Tech Transfer Officers, and Research Vice Provosts to understand university mindsets and needs. What can be learned from the sciences? Where are support services working? What level of support is reasonable? How should it be structured? What benefits accrue to the university when it supports OARs? Should universities outsource some support functions? If so, how can these services work in ways that are compatible with universities systems?

4) Launch a center for non-profit initiatives to provide projects with shared services that produce economies of scale. Services could include legal, administrative, financial, technology and hosting.

5) Commission a study of community attitudes toward advertising. If research indicates good opportunities, build a pilot academic ad network for OARs as a test bed for new revenue models.

6) Develop a diagnostic toolkit for:

  • Deciding when a project could move from project to sustainable enterprise
  • Financial decision making—cost/benefit, P&Ls, etc.
  • Impact measurement factors

ATTENDEES included:

Peter B. Kaufman, President and CEO, Intelligent Television
Terry Ehling, Director of Electronic Publishing, Cornell University Library
Joseph J. Esposito, independent management consultant specializing in interim management and strategy work at the intersection of content and digital technology
Ira H. Fuchs, Vice President for Research in Information Technology, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Helen Aguera, NEH
Jo Ellen, Executive Director, NITLE
Emma Beer, Manager, Strategic Content Alliance, JISC
Stuart Dempster, Project Director, Strategic Content Alliance, JISC
Donald J. Waters, Program Officer, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Mark Liberman, Director, Linguistic Data Consortium, University of Pennsylvania
Barbara Dobbs MacKenzie, Editor-in-Chief, RILM Abstracts of Music Literature and Director, Barry S. Brook Center for Music Research and Documentation, CUNY Graduate Center.
Lee Zia, Lead Program Director, National Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education Digital Library (NSDL) Program, National Science Foundation
Brett Bobley, the Chief Information Office and Director, Office of Digital Humanities, NEH
James Shulman, Executive Director, ARTstor
Sandy Payette, Executive Director, Fedora Commons
Eileen Gardiner, Director, ACLS Humanities E-Book Project
Ron Musto, Director, ACLS Humanities E-Book Project
Kate Wittenberg, Director, Electronic Publishing Initiative, Columbia University
Chuck Henry, President, Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR)

Participating from Ithaka:
Kevin Guthrie, President
Laura Brown, Senior Advisor
Rebecca Griffiths, Director of Strategic Services
Nancy Maron, Strategic Services Analyst

Download these notes as a Word document: Notes from the SCA/Ithaka New York sustainability workshop

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