Response to the latest from Ithaka: “Sustainability and Revenue Models for Online Academic Resources”

Once again, Ithaka has done a great service to the scholarly publishing community. Their report on sustainability for online academic resources (OAR) is another important contribution to the literature. Following are a few thoughts I had on the report.

Ithaka does an excellent job of characterizing the personality of OARs. I appreciated its forceful recommendation that OARs need to adapt the techniques used in the business world for determining the viability of their projects. Although many “chose a life in the academic environment and culture,” (section 2 introduction) to avoid market pressures, the truth is that those in the public sector are also competing for limited money and even more limited time and attention span.

The emphasis on the user assessment process and market research, cautioning against “a single product aimed at a single market” (summary #4) and pointing out that “most online academic resources invest too little in market research” (summary), seems quite central to this idea. Could this be a good project for Ithaka or another like-minded organization: a user assessment and market research how-to guide for OARs?

I would also like to see Ithaka follow up on some of their “areas for futher research” including, “how much is spend on subscription fees worldwide?” (Section 4.1.a). As a part of this, it would be useful to have some historic data on who is subscribing and how the proportion of dollars spend on subscriptions has shifted, and where that money has shifted from.

It’s always helpful to hear “most would counsel the project to fail early and often, to develop the capability for rapid cycles of experimentation, rather than spending multiple years attempting to build the optimal resource in isolation from the market.” This is the basis of the Agile IT manifesto and one that always bears repeating. See: http://agilemanifesto.org/principles.html and also the powerpoints from “The Agile It Organization” presentation at the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) 2008 annual meeting. In a print world, the work needs to be perfect before it hits the press. In a digital world, it’s about quick prototyping and churning quickly through new versions. Sounds great, but it’s a real paradigm shift for a world that is very much about conferring reward on a static product of research.

I agree that pay-per-view interest (4.1.b) is increasing. At SSP, a librarian said she would be thrilled if the library could stop paying for institutional subscriptions (and making difficult decisions about where they should spend their money) and reallocated money directly to scholars to invest in pay-per-view. This shift is not going to happen any time soon, but I thought it was an insightful comment.

With Open Access still a hot topic for OARs, the contributor pays model (4.1.c.) brings up all sorts of interesting questions. Well-established in STM publishing, it’s greeted with suspicion by those in the humanities and social sciences: “resistance among faculty to the author pays model because of associations with vanity publishing.” Some that I’ve talked to in H&SS assume that OA is equivalent to free, when it is really just free-to-the-user. In terms of revenue growth issues “if the publication only accepts author fees for those works it chooses to publish,” I’m interested in models where posting and review are open to all, followed by a second, unrelated selection process, which constitutes final acceptance/certification under a particular publication’s brand. Also at issue is brand and certification in an OA environment: can having a strong university press or society brand counteract concerns about vanity publishing? What happens to perceptions of that brand if all submissions are posted if not officially "published"?

I did notice a few omissions. I was surprised the institutional repositories were not sited more explicitly in the “host institutional funds/in-kind contributions” section (2.2.a). In section 2.2.b on corporate sponsorships, I thought they missed out on talking about recent university associations with Microsoft and Google. Was it too much of a minefield? Even so, these have been some of the largest content partnerships to date.

It is useful to have advertising included among the business models, but how realistic is it for OARs? Advertising models depend on traffic: how much traffic should a site anticipate? Under “how much revenue can a scholarly resource generate from advertising,” the report uses the scale of two million page views per month. That is a lot of page views. Tim O’Reilly outlined the challenges of advertising revenue in his keynote at O’Reilly’s Tools for Publishing Change conference and Scott Gray included a slide on this in his talk, “Adding Enough Value to Digital Content to Actually Make Money” at O’Reilly’s Tools for Publishing Change. I think advertising could be an unrealistic model for most academic sites, but I’d be curious to hear from anyone who has made this model work.

Also see Wired’s How-To wiki for more business model ideas.

Laura Cerruti is Director of Digital Content Development at UC Press.

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