All of us are familiar with the National Public Radio model of financing. It works like this: in order to provide programming with a minimal amount of advertising, NPR affiliates make a twice-yearly appeal to their listeners for voluntary contributions, which they call “memberships.” These pitches are excruciating to listen to, partly because they last for 10 days and partly because they consist entirely of variations on a single theme: “You love our programming, and you’ve been enjoying it for free. If people like you don’t contribute, we’ll go out of business. If you want to stop feeling guilty, you’ll have to pony up.”
There are some very interesting things about this model, one of which is that the individual listener derives no external benefit from ponying up. The risk involved in failing to pony up is practically nil. Furthermore, ponying up changes nothing about the listener’s experience. Pledging a contribution doesn’t even make the pledge drive stop; pledge early or pledge late or pledge not at all, and the pledge drive will last just as long. What changes for the listener is the way he or she feels while listening to it.
It’s true, of course, that if NPR listeners were to refuse en masse to contribute to their stations’ support, at least some of those stations would in fact go out of business. But contribution decisions are made by individuals, not by crowds, and the risk to any individual listener that his or her station will go out of business due to his or her refusal to pony up is exceedingly low — far too low to act as a serious motivation to contribute. For that reason, among others, an exceedingly low number of NPR listeners do in fact voluntarily contribute. (NPR star Ira Glass, in his very funny pledge drive promos, regularly says that only 1 in 10 listeners contributes financially.)
What does this have to do with scholarly communication? Right now, not much. But recent developments suggest that it could come to have more relevance in the future.
Consider what happened some years ago with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a peer-reviewed, freely-available online publication that is updated on an ongoing basis and published by Stanford University. The project was begun in 1995 and then became a full-fledged online publication in 1998, attracting grant funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Its ongoing support now comes from a combination of foundation funding and voluntary contributions made by academic libraries and consortia, with matching funds from the NEH. So like NPR and its affiliate stations, the SEP subsists on a blend of public money and end-user contributions.
Now consider what happened just a couple of years ago with the arXiv. Originally developed and housed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the high-energy physics preprint server was for many years supported by LANL staff and a combination of NSF and Department of Energy funding. But according to Paul Ginsparg, the arXiv’s founder and developer, support for the project among senior staff at LANL was weak, and when he left for Cornell in 2001 he took the arXiv with him. For the next 10 years, the arXiv was funded jointly by the Cornell University Library and the university’s computing faculty; according to an article in Nature, the library director at the time estimated that maintaining the basic archive service would cost Cornell as little as $150,000 annually” — while also noting that the library intended to invest in structural improvements for both authors and end users.
Fast-forward to 2010, when Cornell announced a new business model for maintenance of the arXiv. According to a publicly-released budget summary, the annual cost of maintaining the service was by this point roughly $420,000, and Cornell announced that it was implementing a new system of voluntary support according to a three-tiered model under which the top 100 institutional users of the service would be asked to contribute $4,000/year, and the least-active users $2,300/year. This model was intended to keep the doors open while Cornell pursued a more permanent structural solution, and in 2012 the library announced that the Simons Foundation had given it a $60,000 planning grant “to support the development of a governance model that will guide arXiv’s transition from an exclusive initiative of Cornell University Library to a collaboratively governed, community supported resource.”
The SEP and the arXiv both represent very interesting case studies. Do they suggest anything generalizable about the future of scholarly communication?
Obviously, it’s hard to say — but I’m willing to stick my neck out this far:
First, they suggest that such a model can work, given sufficient institutional support (especially in the early going), and given strong agreement in the marketplace with the provider’s value proposition. The SEP is widely respected as a reference source, and it makes obvious sense as an online publication. The arXiv had built an exceptionally strong constituency long before anyone began asking that constituency for money. Both initiatives benefited considerably from years of comfortable incubation in an institutional setting before being nudged out into the cold world of direct-appeal fundraising.
Second, and more subtly, the experiences of the SEP and the arXiv also suggest that such a model is unlikely to become a very serious factor in the near future. How do they suggest this? By having been prominent examples of the model for years and failing to generate much in the way of imitators. If the model were intrinsically interesting, it seems to me that the successful examples of both SEP and, more recently, the arXiv would have led to the creation of more similar initiatives than they have. The fact that this model remains unusual suggests that it may not solve a problem that is widely perceived as serious by stakeholders in the research community.
There is a third issue at work here, and it’s a simple but perhaps subtle one. Budgets are tight, and that means that academic libraries (major fundraising targets for both the SEP and the arXiv) have to make very hard decisions. We don’t have the option of supporting everything that deserves our support, and we have to be ready to answer hard questions about our use of university resources. As an administrator charged with using those resources wisely, I have to be prepared to answer questions like, “What direct benefit does the university realize in exchange for the library’s expenditure of $X?” In the cases of the SEP and the arXiv, the simple answer is, “Nothing.” Our students and faculty get the same level of access regardless of our support, and there is little or no chance that our failure to donate to those initiatives will lead to their disappearance. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t donate (in fact, we do). It does, however, have to factor into our decisions about donating, and if current budget trends continue it very well could result in the cessation of our support.
The bottom line, I think, is that the NPR model of funding for scholarly communication bears watching — but I don’t see it becoming a major player in the landscape anytime soon.