“Exciting” is a nice, neutral term, isn’t it? There are so many different kinds of excitement: emotional anticipation, sensory stimulation, the eager expectation of a new experience, the dread of an incipient crisis, the terror of imminent death. These experiences may have little else in common, but I think they can pretty much all be said to preclude boredom.
Those of us working in scholarly communication have experienced many different kinds of “excitement” over the past 20 or so years, and I don’t think any of us expects things to become any less exciting anytime soon, for better or for worse.
One of the very cool manifestations of the exciting changes that continue to take place in our scholarly ecosystem is the emergence — sometimes gradual and deliberate, sometimes sudden and headlong — of new programs, products, and initiatives. Some of these emerge in response to changes already perceived in the ecosystem; some emerge in an attempt to create change where the status quo is deemed unsatisfactory. Some are designed to contribute new choices or functionalities to the system; some are intended to subvert or replace existing ones.
All of these programs, products, or initiatives, if they want to become going concerns, have one challenge in common: all must demonstrate initial feasibility and ongoing sustainability.
Most of us are familiar with the idea of “proof of concept.” A project or program demonstrates proof of concept when it shows that its theory can survive application in reality. In the library realm, where I work, we most often see proof of concept being demonstrated by means of pilot programs. A pilot program demonstrates proof of concept by showing in the real world that, yes, one’s library can develop, host, and maintain an open educational resource (OER); or establish a house-published journal and produce as least one issue; or provide a home for a digital archive; or establish an award for outstanding student service. By doing something like that once, we demonstrate that it can be done. That’s proof of concept.
Here I’d like to suggest two additional dimensions of proof that are necessary when establishing proof of concept for ongoing projects or initiatives: proof of program, and proof of scale.
Proof of program would mean demonstrating that the initiative one has created is sustainable over time: having developed the OER and made it available to the world, can we keep it going indefinitely? Having published an initial issue of a journal, or an initial volume in a book series, can we continue generating new content, keeping up with the editorial work, and curating the content indefinitely? Having created the digital archive and populated it with an initial batch of content, can we continue adding content to it and providing effective curation? Having established an award for student service, can we keep funding and administering that award from year to year? By keeping such initiatives going over time, we demonstrate that the idea was not just a one-off success. That’s what I would call “proof of program.”
Proof of scale would mean demonstrating that the program can be maintained not only indefinitely (or for whatever length of time is desired), but also that it can be maintained at whatever volume of output is needed or desired: the desired number of issues per year (and of articles per issue), the number of books created per year, the number of awards granted per year, etc. While it’s one thing to demonstrate the possibility of creating and maintaining an OER or a journal over time, it’s a very different thing to show that you can create and maintain as many of them as you’d like to, or keep the content flowing in the amounts desired–particularly if your journal succeeds to such a point that it starts attracting many more submissions than it was originally designed to handle. Does issue #16 of your locally-produced quarterly journal have as many articles (of comparable quality) as issue #1 did? If so, that’s proof of scale.
In the context of academic libraries, though, these three dimensions of “proof” interact in at least one interesting way: when one library demonstrates that a project can successfully be undertaken (proof of concept) and that it can successfully be maintained over time (proof of program), other libraries may follow suit. The original library might have wanted to establish five journals but only succeeded at creating and maintaining one; however, if other libraries see the first library’s initial success and undertake the same type of project (perhaps using templates, platforms, or programming invented by the first one), the resulting impact on the ecosystem will be the same as if the first library had achieved its scale goal. That library may not prove that it is able to carry out the project to scale on its own, but it may still be proved that the project itself is scalable. In other words, if we’re thinking about scale at the institutional level, it’s measured locally; if we’re talking about it in the context of scholarly publishing as a whole, then scalability may be demonstrated across multiple institutions — especially if the programs in question involve open access or other kinds of freely-available content and services that behave cooperatively rather than competitively, and that therefore can be experienced by readers as a suite of offerings.
So what might these three different concepts of “proof” look like in the real world? Here are some examples:
The journal PLOS ONE has demonstrated proof of concept, proof of program, and proof of scale: it has successfully published not only an initial batch of articles, but has reiterated that success over several years, and has done so at a very large and growing scale. (While it’s true that PLOS ONE’s size may be undergoing something of a correction at the moment, that doesn’t change the fact that it has demonstrated the ability to publish at roughly its intended scale over time, and to grow year on year.)
Luminos, a recently-inaugurated open-access monograph program of the University of California Press (previously discussed here in the Kitchen), has published its first batch of three scholarly books, and has announced the imminent publication of seven more. By publishing the first three, Luminos has achieved proof of concept for its unique business model; when it releases the next seven (and as it shows its ability to sustain access to the previous titles), it will have gone some distance towards demonstrating proof of program; to the degree it is able keep publishing new content at the rate desired, it will demonstrate proof of scale. Similarly, Knowledge Unlatched demonstrated proof of concept with the release of its initial batch of 28 books in 2014. Its next batch is scheduled for release in March 2016; if that happens, and especially if that batch is followed by another successful release, Knowledge Unlatched will have demonstrated both proof of concept and proof of program. Proof of scale will be indicated by the ongoing frequency of those releases and the number of books in each batch. (The fact that 80 titles are projected for the second batch is promising in that regard.)
The Open Access Network (OAN) is a highly ambitious program that solicits subventions from research and academic institutions (not just their libraries) in support of open access journal publishing projects by scholarly and learned societies and university presses. Under this program, academic institutions will pay into a central fund, to which societies and presses would apply for grants to allow them to develop freely-available scholarly products. The OAN is quite new and is still in the process of fundraising, and thus has yet to demonstrate proof of concept. Interestingly, in this case concept, program, and scale are all baked together: ongoing programming and global (or at least national) scale are both intrinsic to the OAN’s fundamental concept, making it an unusually ambitious project.
Our current scholarly communication system is in a pretty dynamic state right now (though it’s not chaotic, at least not yet), and its legacy structures are under constant and maybe even increasing pressure from people and organizations who, in varying degrees and with varying degrees of friendliness to those structures, would like to see them change. So we can expect to see a pretty constant stream of such new initiatives arising over the coming years. It will be continue to be interesting to see how many of those initiatives are able to demonstrate proof of concept, proof of program, and proof of scale—and how each of them does so.