We are beginning to see the first practical implementations of open source tools, steps toward the research community attempting to reclaim scholarly communications from the commercial interests which have dominated it for the last half century or so. Community-led projects have taken on an increased urgency after the recent spate of acquisitions of essential infrastructure by commercial interests (bepress, as one example, is now a cog in Elsevier’s research workflow strategy). The goals here are both laudable and achievable, but when we think about scholarly communications, we must take the long-term view. Our strategies must be aimed toward permanence and preservation – of systems that will be self-sustaining and stand the test of time — rather than just hoping more support will come along once the initial grant runs out. Are there ways we can help these efforts succeed?
Over the last decade, a clear picture has emerged from the research community. What they want from their system of scholarly communications includes openness, transparency, and expanded access to research outputs including, but not limited to, the final published paper. The drive toward open infrastructure is meant to level the playing field and do away with lock-in to any individual company. What remains unclear is how to make these things happen and who is going to pay for them. Library budgets are already strained to the limit, funders don’t seem to be offering large increases in financial support, and researchers are objecting to seeing their research funds diverted to paying publishing costs.
In a superb piece of analysis, Katherine Skinner, Executive Director of Educopia, took a deep dive into the question of why so many scholarly communication projects stagnate or fizzle out entirely. Her conclusions are largely drawn from Educopia’s recent report Mapping the Scholarly Communication Landscape 2019 Census. If you’re pressed for time, I would advise you stop here and read Skinner’s article instead. In fact, read it twice, as it is both insightful and information dense, with much to consider and digest. I won’t go into every one of her cogent points, but wanted to highlight a few that really resonated with my experience in publishing and community infrastructure efforts.
The first is the emphasis on novelty and innovation at the expense of maintenance. If you have a good idea, it’s not that hard to get a grant or financial backing to build out that idea, but once it exists, how do you keep it running? There’s not a lot of funding out there for long term maintenance (and by maintenance, I mean continuous updating and upgrading) of existing services or tools. As Skinner explains:
The tools, platforms, and services that get attention tend to be the buzzy ones with new bells and whistles, not the stable ones who are maintaining their foundation…Most grants are for entirely new development directions, and often all of the staff are paid to pursue that new direction. The vital work of maintenance happens on the margins of paid time and in unpaid overtime.
The way to overcome this problem is to build in a business model from the very beginning of the project. Relying on grants, donations, or membership dues is an unstable foundation for a project meant to stand the test of time. A change in government, an economic downturn, or a shift in priorities for your key members can be the undoing of a valuable piece of infrastructure that is reliant upon the goodwill of donors.
Instead, approaching not-for-profit, community-owned projects as businesses can provide a solid basis for their continuing existence. As always, it’s important to understand that not-for-profits must generate a surplus if they hope to be around for long. Breaking even leaves you no ability to grow, improve your offerings, weather a difficult period, or overcome strategic mistakes. While you don’t need to profit at the levels seen by commercial entities in the community, you can charge fair prices for valued services and earn enough to run a successful and continuing organization.
Consider CrossRef as an example. CrossRef runs at a reasonable profit margin, consistently earning a significant surplus every year. This both ensures the continuing presence of the essential services CrossRef offers to the community, and it allows them to continually improve those services and build out new projects for the benefit of the community.
There’s a second key point in that quote above, the mention of “unpaid overtime”:
In part because academy-owned solutions charge less, they often require more engagement from their “client-members.” Burn out is a serious threat to stability, and it’s happening to our leaders, our advocates, and our volunteers.
Relying on volunteers working in their spare time is not a reliable basis for essential infrastructure. Expecting volunteers working at night and on weekends to outcompete commercial products with highly paid professionals puts community efforts at an immediate disadvantage. Beyond the inefficiencies and instability, there are labor ethics issues here. With core values of openness and equitability, labor practices need to be similarly transparent and fair. There is a clear value to living wages as an aspect of the sustainable future, and that means a business model that allows you to pay talented workers what they are worth.
Another key point in Skinner’s analysis is the lack of business experience and knowledge in community-led projects:
Most of our programs and organizations are led by founders or champions who know a lot about the product or service, but who have never been taught how to build or maintain a business.
Academics often have a bias against business – it’s a foreign world, outside of their expertise or interest. As someone who has gone from the laboratory bench to a career in the publishing business, I can readily testify that business is hard to learn. It took me a similar amount of time to start to feel comfortable with the tools and concepts of the laboratory as it did the tools and concepts of running a book or journal publishing program. It’s not enough to just have a really good idea, or, as Joe Esposito puts it, “there is more to the game than being smart.“
There is a balance to be had between idealism and pragmatism, of finding practical ways to realize lofty goals. The two largest and most successful university presses, Oxford and Cambridge, have built that success on being run as businesses, on a separate management track than their parent universities. PLOS is another example of success where an ideologically-driven not-for-profit has succeeded by hiring smart, experienced business people to build and run the operations.
The challenge then, is to bring business acumen and experience to community-owned projects. This can be difficult because the consultants and executives who know this stuff really well are often far too expensive for a small not-for-profit research society or academic library-led project to afford. As a potential solution, Skinner points to groups like the Nonprofit Finance Fund as a way forward. The NFF is a 501(c)(3) that offers financing, consulting, partnerships, and knowledge-sharing for not-for-profits.
Is there capacity to create similar shared resources for the scholarly research community? If the community hopes to wrangle back control over its communication system from the commercial sphere, then building programs to provide business experience and acumen may be one of the most essential types of infrastructure needed for success. There are reasons why the commercial companies dominate the landscape — they’re really very good at what they do. But these are skills, practices, and strategies that can be learned and readily applied to not-for-profit approaches. If we want to build community infrastructure that can thrive over the long term rather than struggle with a hand-to-mouth existence, then a sound business foundation is essential.
7 Thoughts on "Building for the Long Term: Why Business Strategies are Needed for Community-Owned Infrastructure"
The business question I’d like OA-activist libraries to ask is, “Do we need to invest in writing yet another free open source journal manager (this time, in Django!) or would using and contributing to an already-existing solution allow us to achieve our goals more effectively for lower cost?”
Thank you for this article! One of central tensions inherent in this is that business models (and product development and sales/sustainability) have typically been cast within a competitive, and one could argue bias away from, community/open source. However, there is a new way of doing business now in our industry: values-driven, community-led/accountable, and open.
So, how does a non-profit nurture its competitive intelligence and advantage? Articulate and protect its community position and its overall go-to-market (community) strategies? How do non-profits, like university presses, make their brand messaging distinct and relevant to its community? Are non-profits just meant to be transparent and open to the extent that they jeopardize their sustainability and potential growth?
These types of questions are merging at the core of our work at Michigan given the values and academy-led innovations that we, in collaboration with many others, are developing. What seems to work so far is making sure to acknowledge (and reward) people and work that successfully applies and leverages the best of “business” in such a way that it advances mission and ensures growth. I will say that I myself come from outside the non-profit community, but from within our industry, and I’ve leaned heavily on my commercial expertise and training in product development, sales, and market research to move forward our work. It can be done, but it is not easy.
I look forward to others’ thoughts so on this topic and hope to share what we are doing and learning at forthcoming conferences, etc.!
-Lanell White, Director of Sales and Marketing, University of Michigan Press| Michigan Publishing
Thank you, David; I think this is a really interesting topic. There is a complex landscape here, where the term ‘non-for-profit’ encompasses both ‘amateurs working late nights’ and a ‘billion-dollar publishing corporation, paying its CEO millions per year, that just happens to send its surplus to a university, rather than a pension fund’.
I think the fundamental question is not really the ‘faux-fairness’ issue of ‘who is getting the surplus?’ It is more important to answer the question ‘What sort of organisation can best create an initiative, and then run it sustainably?’ One potential solution is for academic institutions, and committees of researchers, to conceptualise, prototype and popularise something, but for them to licence commercial organisations to develop and operate it for them, so that sustainability is reliant on good value for paying customers, rather than the goodwill of donors.
The Researcher to Reader Conference (disclosure: I am the Conference Director) is inviting discussion on this very topic in our Call for Papers, which closes on 23 August, where this is one of our suggested themes: “Is ‘commercial’ always compromised and ‘not-for-profit’ always pure, or can the efficiencies of the business world successfully co-exist with academia?”.
I encourage people with an interest in this to get in touch with R2R.
Excellent article David. I often wonder why so many presses and societies seek to reinvent the wheel when the resources needed already exist in established commercial or non-profit entities. At this year’s SSP meeting that thought continually ran through my head as I heard several presentations about incremental increases in platform functionality that hopefully some day would be a robust functional system. Yes, idealism has to meet pragmatism and the academy has to be more business minded. If the price is to high, if the functionality is not there, negotiate, and come to an agreement that serves your constituency.
I find all of this very interesting. However, for the fast majority of not-for-profits they are simply not going to compete with the likes of Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and T&F. Thus, they have a choice if they want their journal/book program to survive and that is to carefully look at costs and returns and if they are not earning desired income on their investments then to sign an agreement which gives them editorial control with one of the above that yields the desired return.
Good thoughts about enabling capacity for those who are so busy working in the business they don’t have time to work on the business. The more time and space people have to work on strategy, the more likely they are to achieve sustainable operations. A good board capable of providing strategic insight has an important role in a not-for-profit organisation.
In a related area of private vs public projects, I happened, recently, to see in The Economist ‘1843’ magazine (June/July 2019), mention of Jonathan Karpoff’s paper suggesting that “Most major Arctic discoveries were made by private expeditions. Most tragedies were publicly funded.”