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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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The title here is a little deceptive. Because, clearly, I do know what we mean when we call scholarly communications platforms ‘sustainable’. We mean that they will, through one business model or another, manage to maintain themselves without research funders ploughing endless cash into them. Yet, I’ve been thinking about this recently and it comes with several pre-assumptions that are quite tricky to unpick.

The prompt that led me to this was Elsevier buying SSRN. This, in turn, took me back to Geoff Bilder, Jennifer Lin, and Cameron Neylon’s Principles for Open Infrastructure work. The aspect to which I was there drawn was the way in which the term sustainability is defined and used. Specifically, Bilder et al. propose the the following principles for open scholarly infrastructures:

  • Time-limited funds are used only for time-limited activities – day to day operations should be supported by day to day sustainable revenue sources. Grant dependency for funding operations makes them fragile and more easily distracted from building core infrastructure.
  • Goal to generate surplus – organisations which define sustainability based merely on recovering costs are brittle and stagnant. It is not enough to merely survive it has to be able to adapt and change. To weather economic, social and technological volatility, they need financial resources beyond immediate operating costs.
  • Goal to create contingency fund to support operations for 12 months – a high priority should be generating a contingency fund that can support a complete, orderly wind down (12 months in most cases). This fund should be separate from those allocated to covering operating risk and investment in development.
  • Mission-consistent revenue generation – potential revenue sources should be considered for consistency with the organisational mission and not run counter to the aims of the organisation. For instance…
  • Revenue based on services, not data – data related to the running of the research enterprise should be a community property. Appropriate revenue sources might include value-added services, consulting, API Service Level Agreements or membership fees.

Many of these seem very sound and form the basis on which we are trying to work for OLH, but the ones that interest me are the first (on time-limited funds) and the fourth (on mission-consistent revenue generation). Because it strikes me that there is an interesting and/or problematic tension at play here. The principles set out by Bilder et al. note, up-front, that “infrastructure at its best is invisible. […] If successful, it is stable and sustainable”. But can stability and sustainability be linked together in this way in the world of scholarly communications?

We can well define various functions that the infrastructure of ScholComms needs. Preservation, distribution, disssemination, some kind of authority control etc. Funders who plough millions upon millions of dollars into research each year know that their researchers will, for the most part, seek out publication venues that hold these basic functions. But the challenge is that funders are very good, often, at giving initial start-up, community-driven enterprises funding to start (the funding is time-bound, as per the principles of Bilder et al.). Yet, as Mike Taylor has bluntly put it, such funding is dependent upon the project then seeking out revenue streams that are renewable and ongoing. This is the ‘sustainability’ part. We will give funds up front, the logic goes, so that you can get to running yourself in a reasonable time period.

This makes sense in some ways. Funders, after all, want to fund research for the most part. Funding infrastructure seems to divert resources away from that funding stream. So, even while funders can recognize the need for common infrastructural elements, there are fights with authors that would need to be had (if a platform was mandated for example), challenges of monopoly from existing commercial publishers, and many other difficult elements to negotiate. How would a funder even select who was going to be running the infrastructure that they might fund?

And so the problem then faced by new, community-driven, open-access and principled publishers/infrastructure is that they must seek business models that are compatible with existing library and institutional structures. Subscriptions are the easiest to handle here; libraries have paid these for decades. So this is what we sought for OLH: ask libraries to pay something that looks like a subscription and that can be understood as such, except that we make everything open-access anyway. This banks upon a non-classical economic model in which free-riders do not matter as much to libraries (which seems true from my experience of running OLH). The alternative dominant model is the Article Processing Charge (APC). This is a reversal of the usual model, asking the supplier of the article to pay, rather than the reader. It’s useful in a way, but it also has a core problem.

The problem is that subscriptions and/or APCs are fragmented payments that come in dribs and drabs and often require up-front capital investment for the organization to run its initial period. After all, if you are paid £500 per article (a low APC) as a publisher, then if you want to have the staff in place, you need to have initial funds that will let you hire them until you publish at a volume that can cover the requisite quantity. This has huge implications for the entire filtering/peer-review structure that I will leave untouched for now (because it’s too complex for this post). But the point is that it’s very difficult to run an enterprise that is “stable” on the basis of a sporadic and unpredictable income model. Even subscriptions are prone to annual renewal and the hope that enough institutions will so that one can be stable.

Which is all to say that I’m unsure what the role of competition is supposed to play here. We know that competition can foster great changes that improve systems. We also know, though, that competition requires elements of instability that are antithetical to running good scholarly communication infrastructures. For instance, Bjoern Brembs outlines a series of reasons why it is very hard for librarians to cancel subscriptions in a way that might seem logical for an instant transformation to open access, but is actually a collective-action problem spurred by rhetorics of competition in the university sector. Indeed, this form of competition leads to stagnation since it privileges those already in place (the safe bet for universities) running on existing models of finance (which are much harder for new publishers/infrastructure providers to become sustainable upon without up-front [usually venture] capital).

So, I’ll continue to work for ‘sustainability’ for the platforms that I run. It’s important and it’s going well. But I think the term hides many problems that discourage experimentation with new business models. Sustainability might mean: if your model is new, make it look old. It also seems to limit the ways in which we ask broader communities (research institutions) to disseminate and read research work. Our infrastructures are run as though they are specific to each project (i.e. budget for APCs in a grant bid) while they are actually, as Geoff Bilder has put it at many conferences, more like electricity; an animating force that runs behind scholarship and research.

There are no easy answers here and funders can’t just give out cash to their favoured organizations in ways that are not time- and activity- limited. On the other hand, though, it’s worth thinking this through a little more since the way that we usually mean ‘sustainable’ is not entirely hospitable to the stability of the infrastructures that we need.