Collective action for scholarly infrastructures

Today I’m rather belatedly picking up on Cameron Neylon’s January post, which itself was a response to David Lewis’s proposal that libraries devote 2.5% of their budget to pay for shared scholarly infrastructures. I’ve been concerned about the sustainability of scholarly infrastructures for some time, for example working with arXiv on developing their model a few years ago, and 2012 helping to define a small programme by the Knowledge Exchange partnership, which produced, among other things, a “sustainability index” [PDF]. That programme culminated in a 2015 report that was designed to show how the open science aspirations and policies of research funders and institutions depend on key pieces of the scholarly infrastructure, and therefore that they have an interest in its sustainability. After some negotiation, SPARC Europe picked up the recommendation from this report that an independent body should coordinate the identification and collective funding of those infrastructure services. This has become the Sustainability Coalition for OA Services, or SCOSS.

One original vision for SCOSS was that it be a committee of membership organisations, representing the funders and universities whose OA aspirations are supported by scholarly infrastructure, and which have an interest in that infrastructure being open and community-based. This committee would develop a set of criteria for the infrastructure services in scope, a process for evaluating investment in those services, and a mechanism to solicit, collect and disburse funds from organisations which were (indirectly) represented on SCOSS. There was a good number of organisations around the table in the initial conversations in 2016 (albeit concentrated too much in the Global North), including Science Europe, the European Universities Association, LIBER (Association of European Research Libraries), SPARC, EIFL (Electronic Information for Libraries), and the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group.

However, for now, SCOSS itself is smaller both in ambition and in membership than I originally imagined it might be. Its members are the Council of the Australian University Librarians (CAUL), LIBER, EIFL and SPARC Europe. It does not provide any mechanisms related to funds, but instead receives funding proposals – at present from DOAJ and Sherpa/RoMEO – and decides whether to endorse them to its members. Those services themselves then need to liaise directly with potential funders, backed by the SCOSS endorsement. This is working to some extent, and may be the only practical example of a collective action funding mechanism that is in principle scalable to many services, rather than being focused on one particular service.

In his post, Cameron recommends that those asked to support open science services should shift their perspective a little, from seeing the money spent as simply sustaining a service to viewing it more as an investment in community capacity that also provides exclusive benefits to supporters. Our experience with SCOSS suggests that this shift has some way to go, and that much better ways are needed to increase the visibility of the value of both that community capacity and the exclusive benefits available to supporters. At the moment, expressing this value can feel somewhat “hand-wavy”, more a plausible appeal than an evidence-based business case. There is an extensive literature and wide expertise now in social accounting, which perhaps could be used to firm up our efforts to demonstrate the various kinds of benefit offered by community-based services supporting open research. And this topic is now back with the Knowledge Exchange partnership again, working again with Cameron, looking this year at the wider economy of open scholarship. This is an attempt to develop a coherent and practical conceptual framework to help investors in infrastructure – such as Jisc – make better investment decisions. More on that in a future post.

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