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2. Allocating Resources

Published onJul 14, 2019
2. Allocating Resources

Total levels of funding for expansive digital publishing is a critical question, but one likely to involve deeply idiosyncratic and local considerations that we cannot address here. Whatever the total amount devoted to publishing at a given institution, we start from the premise that all libraries and wider universities confront budget constraints, and so must think carefully about how to allocate scarce resources. In the context of expansive digital publishing, that reality should compel libraries to ask hard questions about the resources required by proposed publications as well as the timing of funding needs, so that they can help these publications realize their potential without undercutting other important work. Yet the resource requirements for digital publishing often remain murky, complicating the process of deciding what projects to take on, how to assess short- and long-term resource needs, and how to determine appropriate levels of financial and staff support. Simultaneously, we need to understand and articulate the scholarly value of these publications in order to justify those costs.

Challenges and approaches to allocating resources

Far and away, the most significant challenge we identified in allocating resources for expansive digital publishing is not knowing what they actually cost. Our conversations with experts and practitioners helped explain why these costs are often opaque or unreported, and we arrived at some clear recommendations for better ways forward:

Encouraging transparency of cost, especially labor. Libraries and other units that underwrite expansive digital publications often do not fully know the resources that go into them. Routine contributions of labor, by librarians as well as scholars, do not require funding requests or effort reporting. In academic culture, where such activities as peer review, curating, mentoring, or networking constitute a normal part of one’s work, this opacity is unsurprising. Workshop participants and interviewees noted insufficient tracking and reporting of time even from full-time staff tasked with this work.1 Unwillingness or inability to translate intellectual work into monetary equivalents may reflect resistance to a return-on-investment (ROI) mentality, in which publications must demonstrate immediate, visible impact in proportion to resource investment, regardless of their intellectual value or potential. It may also reflect a fear some workshop participants raised that once a publication’s costs are fully tracked, it will be deemed too expensive to support. Yet without a clear accounting of the work involved in producing these publications, particularly the expertise and labor required, we undervalue the human contributions to their development and success and deprive ourselves of critical information necessary to plan for and support these projects.

Identifying values. Clearer communication about the general value of these publications, especially those that may take years to realize their potential, can help to discourage an ROI approach to funding and instead promote a fund-to-mission mindset. Evaluating impact and cost on per-publication basis misses the broader aims of expansive digital publishing, such as cultivating a more diverse scholarly community, changing the curriculum for a discipline, or defining a new area of research. These goals take more than a single publication or fiscal year to realize. Yet knowing actual costs is fundamental to building a sustainable approach to support and thus to fulfilling a loftier mission. The challenge, then, as articulated by workshop participants, is to both “lead with our values and our value.”

Saying “no.” A fund-to-mission mindset offers crucial assistance in addressing another challenge in allocating resources for expansive digital publishing: the lack of criteria defining which publications to support. Workshop participants noted that there is often a disinclination, particularly among libraries, to say “no” to requests for support. Perhaps this reflects libraries’ service orientation — all patrons must be helped — but it could also reflect a lack of strategic focus regarding what the library can (and wants to) take on. No institution can support all publications, particularly over a long period of time. Greater transparency around costs, and greater clarity about mission can help answer whether institutions should take on a given proposal or maintain funding for a evolving publication.

Allocating resources within libraries

The challenges described above offer some possible areas of focus for libraries wanting to support expansive digital publishing. Below, we outline a few solutions that libraries may be well positioned to implement.

Proposal process for start-up and development funding. A proposal process helps address the challenge of what to fund and can also help establish regular practices for documenting resources, disseminating lessons learned, and conducting peer reviews. With a clearly defined mission and set of strategic priorities driving this funding process, libraries can justify decisions to support exploration or development and, crucially, to decline projects that don’t align with their goals or resources. A proposal process for receiving start-up funds, in addition to providing a first round of peer review, helps set time and resource boundaries for establishing the project’s potential. Determinations about whether to continue development can go through a subsequent vetting process, which offers another opportunity for documenting effort, success, and lessons learned. Following the start-up phase, these projects may also have a better sense of resource needs.

Time for (and documentation of) staff’s work. Giving staff the freedom to contribute a percentage of their time to developing expansive digital publications can help them to expand their own skills and expertise, while also helping jumpstart new ideas. Sanctioning this time in exchange for more data on what staff’s work actually involves can further clarify and make visible the value they contribute, as well as the time that can be allotted in the future for similar work.

Consultation and training, including project planning and referrals. Platform and tool choice, team membership and development, and tracking and reporting outcomes can have tremendous resource implications over time, yet scholars and teams do not always recognize the need to carefully consider these dimensions of their publications at the outset. Consultations and training can help scholars better understand the needs of digital publications, plan for a publication’s growth, and budget resources accordingly. For libraries, such services libraries provide a means to track, document, and communicate existing interest in publishing, which in turn can help them advocate for more institutional support. Consultation services may follow from and be justified by a mini-grants program that surfaces interest and helps build demand. Training, however, is a particularly important step towards better resource management overall: it helps more people do the work themselves and also raises awareness of the resources required.

Opportunities for partnerships

A number of recent projects funded by the Mellon Foundation have tested and demonstrated the potential for building publishing capacity through partnerships. Success in these endeavors depends on greater awareness of the actual costs involved as well as the value different contributors bring to the process.

Community-managed resources. Workshop participants recommended that universities seek out or build services developed through community mechanisms rather than exclusively by commercial vendors. A community of stakeholders who believe in the mission of an organization and the value of the work it supports, and who feel that they’re part of a community, are more likely to continue to support the mission of the organization and to understand its value in relation to the costs. Conversely, in purely commercial vendor/client relationships where the interaction is primarily transactional and the emphasis is fundamentally financial, there is little room for exploration, and the vendor will seek primarily to maximize profit and the client to minimize costs. In this kind of relationship, core operating principles and values are more likely to be obscured.

Fee-for-service resource-sharing. Sharing services, however, introduces more variability than circulation of static resources. A fee-for-service model could be another way to leverage shared resources while explicitly acknowledging the costs (and value) that libraries bring to the publication process. Although libraries have not historically paid each other for services, the recently funded Data Curation Network may provide a test case for how such a model might work. In this initiative, the eight participating institutions contribute 5% of their own staff time for a data-curation consultation and support service, which any researcher at the member institutions can use. Making such a network a fee-for service system would require predictable, quantifiable workflows.

Differentiated roles and phases in digital publication development. Building capacity for expansive digital publishing requires us to recognize the different stages of “publishing.” In particular, we may need to re-inscribe the traditional view of publishing as a formal and vetted process. Doing so will help ensure that everyone in the scholarly communication ecosystem can better distinguish the work in earlier, pre-review stages from vetted, peer-reviewed content. For instance, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the library is working with scholars to publish interim work that may eventually transition into more formal, vetted publications produced by a press. Following a similar model, Libraries could play key intermediary roles: helping authors to develop ideas, with the flexibility to recommend and implement the form that best matches the goals of the project. In addition to helping authors implement and potentially demonstrate a work’s innovation, audience, and impact, the library can also help ready these works for a second phase of publication involving more peer-review and accreditation of the scholarship. In some cases one library could publish across all phases of the work, but in many others it will likely be desirable to partner with a second-phase publisher, such as a university press. Again, connecting incubated projects with publishing partners best positioned to take them to the next phase of development requires a communication network that does not currently exist.

Erin Nettifee:

There’s lots of parallels here to the ongoing discussions about devaluing archival work and the role of interns in libraries - how that damages DEI and makes us less relevant to the social mission of the university. See

Liz Milewicz:

Thanks for sharing that article, Erin! (We’re actually going to be reading that in our digital scholarship discussion group this spring) Yes, I think there’s an important connection here between how these projects are created / sustained and labor practices in universities and libraries. At heart, I really don’t think we have accounted for the actual value of these publications — and may never be able to fully — because so much of the work is undertaken outside of financial accounting systems (e.g., part of classroom instruction; work that folds into the “services” libraries already provide; experiential learning for which students receive credit rather than pay). For my own part, I’ve started to create entries in my project spreadsheets for volunteers and other unpaid laborers (e.g., field experience students) so that I don’t lose sight of who was responsible for getting the work done and to begin better accounting for what that work would have cost, had we actually paid someone for their expertise and time. I’ve been impressed by the work of the DLF Working Group on Labor in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums, who have been actively engaged in these questions of labor and compensation. <>