July 23, 2019
Why Are So Many Scholarly Communication Infrastructure Providers Running a Red Queen’s Race?By Katherine Skinner
“...it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” (Red Queen to Alice, "Through the Looking Glass")
A few weeks ago, we at Educopia published the first project deliverable for the “Mapping Scholarly Communication Infrastructure” project, which we’re working on with Middlebury College and TrueBearing Consulting. The deliverable is a report and a set of data visualizations based on our deep dive into the organizational and technical infrastructures of “Scholarly Communication Resources,” (SCRs) or the tools, platforms, and services that undergird and support today’s digital knowledge infrastructures.
The report details our project team’s findings from the Census of Scholarly Communication Infrastructure Providers—a survey we ran this spring (and have recently reopened with IOI) to which 45 programs and organizations willingly gave hours of their time and scads of information about their technical development and design, their fiscal models, their revenue streams and expenditures, their documentation, and their governance and community engagement work.
(THANK YOU TO THOSE GENEROUS FOLKS!!!)
As the report’s lead author, I chose to focus the report squarely on the data we collected. I did not let myself editorialize—or, to be more honest, I tried to cut and edit out all of the loose strands of editorializing that I found myself doing, despite my best intentions.
This blog post is my first attempt to share some of my observations, post-report, that are not based explicitly on the data. They are messier, more speculative, and less about what SCRs are-and-are-not-doing, and more about my thoughts on why so many SCRs are barely surviving year-to-year – especially the SCRs that are operating in close coordination with and oversight by the scholarly community.
Below, I focus primarily on “academy-owned” and “academy governed” tools, platforms, and services. I believe strongly that there is room for a lot of approaches in a healthy scholarly communications space—nonprofits, for profits, B Corps, academic-institution hosted, etc. There is not one “right” model, and there is no single category that should be considered either villainous or righteous.
But I also believe that each of these models is more likely to work well for the academy if the SCR is governed by, and ultimately held accountable to, the academy.
I also want to note here Educopia is in no way “apart from” these observations I make below—we are studying ourselves as a part of this system and dynamic, too. For the last 13 years, we’ve tried to be nimble players in the shifting landscape of digital scholarship and digital curation. And throughout that time, we’ve struggled and fallen at least as often as we’ve celebrated and flourished. My friends and family will quickly attest to how often I have worried about Educopia and its affiliated communities. I think that’s a very, very familiar story to many of our peers who are trying to maintain and sustain their programs and organizations against very stiff odds.
Remember Alice in “Through the Looking Glass”? I think of her, holding the Red Queen’s hand, and running as fast as she can while the Red Queen shouts “Faster! Faster!” And then, when the Red Queen finally takes pity and gives her a rest, Alice is stunned to find that she is still under the same tree where her running journey began.
Leaders of academy-owned and academy-led communities are expending so much energy, running at top speed so much of the time. And no matter how fast we’re going, we’re often not moving forward.
So what has us Red-Queen-Racing our way through, year after year, as we try to build and maintain scholarly communication infrastructure? This is my “top seven” list at the moment:
1. We are chronically underfunded and understaffed.
“Academy-owned” and “academy governed” tools, platforms, and services have been well trained to run on as little funding as possible. Open Source Software provides a terrific example, not just within our field, but well beyond it, as beautifully noted by André Staltz last month. If payment is not required, most users will not voluntarily contribute funding. And the programs and organizations building scholarly communication tools, platforms, and services in partnership with the academy tend to ask client/members for the bare minimum. When we have so little capital in hand, we are unable to invest properly in both maintenance and in R&D, which means that we struggle to offer compelling packages to potential client-members. It also means that we struggle to offer compelling packages to staff, who are paid less than they should be, and often are in limited-term positions.
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. Participation in academy-owned, academy governed communities is prioritized because of its many positive implications–involved staff learn from their colleagues field-wide, help build important shared resources (standards, documentation, infrastructure), and lay crucial groundwork for scaling up academy-owned infrastructure and recalibrating a commercially driven marketplace. But that staff investment also may have negative consequences for individual member representatives, especially when their local colleagues (and supervisors!) do not understand or support their contributions to community work.
2. Our planning and strategy focus more on innovation than maintenance.
Academy-owned, academy-governed communities are rewarded for breaking the mold, not for maintaining a solid base. 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. Is it any wonder, then, that most of our communities are not engaging in strategic planning, but instead are writing their next grant or seeking their next contract?
As a result, much of the code built by academy-owned, academy-governed programs is out-of-step with what their users are requesting. Their users are often most interested in updates, upgrades, maintenance, bug-fixes, or documentation for the existing code, but the users aren’t paying enough to fund that maintenance work. When most of a tool, platform, or service’s software engineers are 100% grant funded (as the data shows is true for so many!), they effectively design their work according to what a grant agency or foundation is most interested in funding. 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. So does the cultivation of a user base that is willing to pay for services, which requires hard market development and sales and communication work that also does not tend to be funded through grants.
3. We often compete with one another for scarce resources.
Because we are in a “let a thousand flowers bloom” type of environment, academy-owned, academy-governed communities wind up fighting for sunlight and water. Duplication of services is happening on a regular basis. Across scholarly communications we see a regular pattern. First, one set of academic libraries build and launch a tool or service. Instead of joining that service and helping it expand and adapt to serve their needs, another set of academic libraries often starts its own, leading to two services that are now competing. We cannot effectively reach scaled infrastructure goals if we are constantly dividing our numbers by competing with each other. Alignment and coordination need to become our top priorities if we are going to have a sustainable environment.
Today, the cost of competition is very, very high—instead of building stable, standards-based, interoperable elements, we are building rickety, overlapping, siloed components. New attempts at structuring our infrastructure at the system level are gaining attention, including Open Platform Initiative, Invest in Open Infrastructure, and David Lewis’s “2.5%” provocation (now “Mapping the Scholarly Communication Infrastructure”). Some of the thorny questions that plagued earlier vestiges of these “achieve scale via a national digital platform” (e.g., CLIR’s Coherence at Scale) and “flip the system through adopting centralized investment strategies” (e.g., K/N Consulting’s White Paper) initiatives are still unanswered–especially those of ownership and control. Pooling academic funding and strategically investing it in interoperable, open components that fit together into workflows is an ongoing challenge. Solutions will have to include incentives for alignment and disincentives for duplication of work, and strong leadership and stronger models of governance and oversight.
4. Support is contingent and attention is fleeting.
Even our healthiest tools, platforms, and services struggle to stay “in the news”. If we are not active in every way—hosting physical events, keeping up on social media, curating our listservs, providing 24/7 support, and attending every conference, we are in danger of being quickly forgotten. There are so many “rising star” projects, and staying relevant to our clients/members requires us to invent ever-new rising stars for our own work. It is not enough to stay focused on our center, our core mission and goal. Instead, many academy-owned, academy-governed communities have learned the hard way that if we want our members to stay active and engaged, we have to be perceived more as “fresh” and “visionary,” than as “stable” and “dependable.” Rebranding, changing features, and giving presentations continuously about our newest efforts may actually be distracting from other work we could be doing – including the “last mile” of implementation work that is so often missing.
5. We depend on leaders who are not trained in basic business functions.
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. There are few mentors or training opportunities available to help us build crucial skills in finance, fundraising, governance, hr, communications, and other areas. There is a similar lack of training for the governance groups and officers – Boards, Steering Committees, Presidents, Treasurers, etc. – charged with protecting and guiding our programs and organizations.
Currently, there is a dearth of funding and of professional development opportunities that adequately prepare PIs and other leaders to manage all of the living, breathing parts of a community. A “valley of death” looms between a successful grant project and an ongoing, maintainable tool, service, or platform, and crossing that valley requires skills that can be learned, mastered, and applied. The Community Cultivation Field Guide (Educopia) and the It Takes a Village publication (LYRASIS) are two documents that synthesize some of the types of work that successful project-to-program transitions undertake, but there are painfully few experts that are available to assist communities through this process, even in the rare instances when communities have funds to pay for such services.
6. We lack assessment and accountability.
With the exception of grant funders requesting standard financials and other documentation to prove the stability and reliability of a potential grantee, we lack mechanisms for checking the health of our tools, platforms, and services against known measures. Assessment and auditing do not need to be punitive—instead, they can help us identify what elements in a program or organization need additional investments and improvements. We may want to look to Europe and SCOSS as a role model for how to approach this, not as a summative exercise (judging success according to a set of factors), but instead as a formative one (helping to identify potential growth areas and structure additional investments).
The data we gathered through the Census and reported on in the Mapping the Scholarly Communication Landscape 2019 Census report demonstrates clearly that assessment processes can provide helpful feedback for programs, enabling them to pinpoint vulnerable areas, and justifying their work to strengthen these areas. Assessment helps to provide, promulgate, and reinforce standards for how best to run our programs, in terms of their governance, communications, administration, technological infrastructure, and finances. Such assessments are common in many other fields. New work underway this year with groups like the Nonprofit Finance Fund (currently funded through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to work with specific programs and nonprofits in our field, including DPLA, HathiTrust, and Educopia) may help to boost our field’s awareness of and adherence to better business practices.
7. We don’t know how much money we currently spend on scholarly communication as a field, nor are we measuring how actions we take impact that number.
We study so many things in great detail in the academy, but we have not thus far explored our own market power. The academy is the main client for scholarly communication. What do we spend, collectively, for our infrastructure today? How do individual institutions make investment choices? How can we be smarter as a collective academic body about our investments? The “Mapping the Scholarly Communication Infrastructure” project team will be trying to probe some of these questions for its next deliverable via conducting a survey of library investments. And a number of other projects and collaborative initiatives, including Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI), MIT Press and Simon Fraser University’s forthcoming scan, Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL), and JROST, are exploring this as well. Getting a better sense of what this financial figure is, who contributes to it, and what it actually funds is crucial, particularly if we are to address historical and current inequities in access—for authors, editors, reviewers, researchers, and interested publics.
The odds currently are stacked against academy-owned, academy-governed groups. And while tenacity and willpower and in some cases, outrageous talent, have led to some significant success stories, I worry that we’re relying too much on these traits and too little on our collective capacity for action.
If we want to build a healthy scholarly communication ecosystem, we have to work at it – beginning with building a strong understanding of where we are today so that we can make sure that in the future, the faster we run, the farther we go.
For Educopia this Summer, publishing the report and data visualizations and now this blog post based on our research are our current steps towards establishing a better understanding where the gaps are. Next up, we’ll be continuing our work with the “Mapping the Scholarly Communication Infrastructure” project team to assess academic library investments through the release of a field-wide survey (stay tuned this Fall!). We hope that with these pieces, we are helping to provide some of the crucial knowledge-groundwork that can help the field move off the “Red Queen’s” treadmill and take sure-footed steps toward building a more sustainable, healthy model for our academy-owned, academy-governed communities.