During the last two decades, we’ve seen the emergence of several open source (OS) and open access (OA) initiatives designed to support the academic and cultural community’s needs for more effective, versatile, and cost-efficient tools. Since 2006, Ithaka S+R has explored the sustainability requirements of these resources, investigating both the factors that lead to success and the reasons behind setbacks and failures. Today, amid the failure of several cross-institutional “open” initiatives and the broader search for funding to support them, there is renewed interest in sustainability, business models, revenue, and maintenance. Before taking on new projects in this area, we thought it would be helpful to look back at the work from a decade ago in the light of subsequent events. 

Responding to the promulgation of mission-driven OS and OA projects, during 2008-09, our colleagues conducted twelve case studies to analyze the steps taken by nascent initiatives to maintain successful and durable operations.  The studies aimed to illustrate the role of leadership, governance, accountability, and assessment in creating thriving enterprises. They also stressed the importance of developing value propositions based on a systematic understanding of user needs and the marketplace. The concept of sustainability was defined as “having a mechanism in place for generating, or gaining access to, the economic resources (labor, capital, entrepreneurship) necessary to keep the intellectual property or the service available on an ongoing basis.”  

The insights gained through Ithaka S+R’s examination of the landscape generated several recommendations to create a structure and culture of sustainability:

  • Sustainability not only involves covering operating costs but also securing ongoing investment to enable continued maintenance and innovation.  
  • It is imperative to have in place systematic business processes with accountable and transparent organizational and governance structures.
  • Non-profit-organizations, just like their commercial counterparts, need to continuously assess the market to understand the competitive environment and users’ actual needs and consumption behavior. 
  • Launching new initiatives are like other start-up ventures and  require a full-time leader with entrepreneurial skills who is experienced in understanding and assessing risks and developing business plans.
  • R&D projects have different organizational needs than projects offering an ongoing service or product.
  • As a project transitions from a pilot to an ongoing service, it will often require a different organizational structure and leadership.
  • User needs, rather than innovation, should be the driving factor behind the service or product.
  • Building scale through partnerships, mergers, and acquisitions is essential to support the required infrastructure and staffing configurations.
  • There is no single formula to ensure sustainability–a number of approaches lead to success.

Meanwhile, at Cornell, one of us (Rieger) was working extensively on community-based sustainability models, with a special focus on arXiv (Making a Case for Community-Based Sustainability Models). She approached arXiv as a sociotechnical system that consists of technical systems and standards, activities, and practices involved in developing and using the system, and the social arrangements and organizations that provide it with a structural framework. Given this holistic approach, she proposed five sustainability principles, including the consideration of disciplinary cultures, creation of a governance structure, stability of technological components, development of content policies, and adherence to managerial best practices.

Fast forward 12 years, and our community continues to be concerned about the future of open scholarship initiatives and advocates similar principles to strengthen the existing and emerging services. Since the initial Ithaka S+R investigations, we have entered into a period with a new wave of failures, consolidations, and pivots. To take just a few examples, just in the past twelve month, the Digital Preservation Network has been sunsetted, DPLA let go a group of employees focused on cultural heritage materials while expanding its footprint on e-books, DuraSpace merged into Lyrasis, and NFAIS merged into NISO

Recently there have been several studies assessing the condition and prospects of academy-driven initiatives offered in the digital scholarship space: It Takes A Village: Open Source Software Sustainability (2018), Open Science by Design (2018),  Mapping the Scholarly Communication Landscape (2019), Why Are So Many Scholarly Communication Infrastructure Providers Running a Red Queen’s Race? (2019), Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care (2019), and Mind the Gap: A Landscape Analysis of Open Source Publishing Tools and Platforms (2019).  Although these studies focus on different categories of systems and operations, they are unified in their conclusions and promote similar managerial, organizational, and financial best practices to enable building, maintaining, and improving effective and transparent services over time. 

At the same time, other parts of the marketplace for academic, mission-driven initiatives continue to be vibrant. For instance, during the last few years we have witnessed the emergence of more than two dozen independent preprint services empowered by open source software from the Center for Open Science. Another recent addition is the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation’s (Coko) PubSweet, which is designed as an OS framework for building state-of-the-art publishing platforms. On the other hand, the business models of even well-established services such as arXiv and Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) continue to be a work-in-progress as they seek to develop long-term plans for the maintenance and upgrade of their systems and services. 

Without a doubt, our community greatly benefits from each new study that examines sustainability challenges and offers examples to illustrate the successes and shortcomings. It is increasingly clear from this work that the challenges are not merely a lack of funding. Rather, the core problems are structural, including attention to participation incentives and other business model considerations; developing and securing adequate leadership and governance; and preparedness for strategic agility in the face of market competition. 

In our next post, we’ll look into the nascent organizations that are forming to provide a meta-framework to a range of independent but like-minded initiatives by fostering networking, raising awareness, and advocating best practices for an enduring and effective service infrastructure.