Sustainability planning is certainly a tricky business. Over the last several months I have been working with teams grappling with sustainability and other long-term plans for four projects: the Big Ten Academic Alliance’s Geoportal, Mapping Prejudice, the Data Curation Network, and AgEcon Search. These are all cross-unit collaborative projects, and multi-institutional in most cases, but their common element is that my library serves as administrative and/or infrastructural home and/or lead institution. This planning has led to an interesting thought experiment, spurred by the AgEcon Search planning.
First, brief background: AgEcon Search is a subject repository serving the fields of applied and agricultural economics. The University of Minnesota (UMN) has been operating it since 1995, back in the pre-web days; the first iteration was Gopher based. It is still jointly sponsored by the UMN Libraries and the UMN Department of Applied Economics, but is now also a partnership that includes financial and other support from the USDA, private foundations, both the national and the international agricultural economics scholarly associations, and others (full list and other info here). There is tremendous support within its scholarly community for AgEcon Search and, increasingly, very strong international use and participation, especially in Africa.
The two UMN host units have started long-term sustainability planning. Right now, a leading strategy is a joint fundraising program with a goal of building an endowment.
Here’s the thought experiment. Roughly speaking, a $2 million endowment would generate sufficient revenue to pay most of AgEcon Search’s annual staffing, infrastructure and other costs. $2 million is about 11% of what the University of Minnesota Libraries spends annually for collections. So if we were able to take just 10% of what we spend in just one year on collections, we would be most of the way towards ensuring a long-term financial future for one project. And if Minnesota could double that, or even go to 25%, then in one year we would be able to do this for two similarly-sized, community controlled open projects. And if we did it for two years, we probably would have funded all four of these (Minnesota-homed) projects. And if we kept going, in the next and following years and be able to use that money to do the same for other projects, at other institutions. And if all academic libraries did the same, how many years would it take to put a really huge dent in our collective open funding problem?
Obviously, there are many, many practical, political, logistical and other challenges to actually doing this with our collections funding, but I’m leaving those aside for the moment, though they are far from trivial. This thought experiment has helped bring focus to my thinking about David Lewis’s 2.5% solution (see also his post on this blog and his later writings with other colleagues), and Cameron Neylon’s response in ‘Against the 2.5% Solution.’ Which, spoiler alert, is not strictly speaking against the solution, but in favor of a number of things including an investment quality index that can guide these investments, a variety of different strategies, and in support of a much bigger investments than the 2.5%.
Which is where I think we absolutely need to be — more aggressively and more deeply investing in open. 2.5% per year is not enough. 25% might be getting warmer. Would I love for that money to come from our universities instead of from our collections budgets? Sure. But will it happen and how long will it take? Speed and agility will be increasingly important. To underscore that point: the Data Curation Network got its Sloan pilot grant funding and was well underway planning and (openly) sharing rich information about what it takes and how to do data curation when Springer announced it would offer for-fee data management and curation services. Wellcome Trust is now in a pilot to fund its investigators to use Springer’s service (I’m not linking, use your favorite search tool). The Data Curation Network, like many collective projects, has been starting to make the case for community support, with the usual mixed responses. How many more projects will teeter on the brink of survival while publishers with a long history of enclosure and extortionate pricing gobble them up, or out-market us, or out-innovate us? What’s your favorite open project or workflow tool? Has it been asking for support?
I am, personally, decidedly lukewarm on the all-APC flip that started the OA2020 conversation, but don’t think we have the luxury of ruling out many strategies at this point. More, smarter, and faster are the words that guide my thinking and my hopes for a more open, community-owned scholarly communications ecosystem. I’m very much looking forward to the ‘Choosing Pathways to OA‘ workshop at Berkeley in October, and grateful to colleagues at the University of California, including the faculty, who have injected recent energy and inspiration, and who have invested in space to bring us together to talk about advancing practical strategies. See other posts on this blog about offsetting at MIT and the publishing layers (formerly known as RedOA) project. I hope we will be talking about both of these and more, and preparing for truly transformative change. Fast.