A Sustainable Business Model
A central goal of the research done under this grant was to develop the outline for a feasible business model for the technology to be developed, and begin getting feedback from potential partners/stakeholders.
While experimental digital projects are important, the long-term sustainability — and ultimate value — of any technology developed is only possible with a sustainable revenue and business model. A sustainable financial model allows the technology to continue to grow and improve, and enables proper support (customer support, marketing, and sales) of the software.
We approached the development of a feasible business model with two central ideas in mind:
- The focus of software development should always be the needs of the scholarly reader.
- We should try to develop a business model that works in partnership with existing players in the academic ecosystem, rather than in competition.
As described above, the existing players in the ecosystem are:
- university presses, who produce and publish monographs
- aggregators, who serve as commercial and delivery intermediaries between publishers and libraries
- academic libraries, who are the buyers of content and offer support to readers and the research community
- scholarly readers, who are the “end-customer” of both the libraries and publishers, and the creators of content
While we did not interview aggregators officially as part of this report, we did have several conversations with some aggregators (namely Project Muse, and ACLS Humanities E-Book), and it was clear that their technology focus is on discoverability. The reading platform is either not the focus (in the case of non-profit aggregators), or is part of an explicitly closed-silo system (in the case of commercial aggregators, such as Proquest, Ebsco, and Overdrive). In the case where there is a reading system associated with an aggregator, that system comes for “free” as part of an acquisitions and delivery platform.
Further, the central insights gleaned from interviews with libraries and publishers are:
- Libraries are indeed the ultimate buyers of digital monograph content.
- Libraries are generally unsatisfied with the digital platforms for reading made available by aggregators.
This opens up the possibility to develop a business model, whereby a hosted version of open source Rebus Reader software can be provided to libraries, and purchased through the “tools”/IT infrastructure budget, rather than the “content acquisitions” budget, which is allocated to aggregators, who usually provide their reading platforms for “free”.
This allows the reading system to be decoupled from the acquisitions process and platform, and allows Rebus to offer an added value service, which can work in partnership with aggregators. particularly those non-profit aggregators (such as ACLS Humanities e-Book, Project MUSE and JSTOR), whose missions align more closely with The Rebus Foundation.
In general this model has been received positively by the libraries we have talked to, and with openness from aggregators we have interacted with (ACLS Humanities e-Book, and Project Muse).
While the details of the business model — marketing, pricing, service, support — need to be fleshed out, there is enough indication from the critical players in the ecosystem, especially the potential buyers, that this model could well be successful, and allow us to truly begin to build digital tools for the scholarly reader, with an expectation of a sustainable future.
The other central goal of this project was to gain a better understanding of the needs of scholarly readers, and to use that understanding to shape the future development of the Rebus Reader/Personal Library Software. The prototype of this tool helped to illustrate what it might look like to stakeholders, and generated significant (positive) feedback. We are now equipped with more insight into our potential users and stakeholders, we can begin moving from prototype to a fully functional and fleshed-out product.
The core purpose of our proposed tool is to improve the reading and research experience for scholarly readers, leveraging the combined power of digital and the open web.
The technology will be based on a set of general technical principles:
- A digital reading platform should makes many things possible that are not possible with print.
- An open, web-based digital reading platform should make many things possible that are not possible with “closed” digital reading platforms (e.g. Kindle, Overdrive, Ebsco, Proquest).
- An open, web-based digital reading platform should allow third parties to build services, tools, and innovations upon the basic framework of the underlying system.
- Integrations with web-based digital scholarship projects (such as Fulcrum and Manifold Scholarship) will improve both the reading platform, and those projects.
- Content and user data should not be locked into the platform.
- Data generated by readers and users should belong to them; users should control how data about their usage is used.
- Readers should be allowed to do what they want with the texts they are reading (as long as they don’t break laws): search, copy, modify, annotate, etc.
- Scholarly reading is (usually) part of a broader research activity, and any tools must fit within this reality.
- While features must be developed to improve the reading experience for readers, libraries, university presses, and aggregators must be key partners in developing technology that answers the needs of whole ecosystem.
Insights on Product Development
The interviews conducted as part of this project, in particular with readers, have been indispensable in shaping our approach to development. The following are the four most significant takeaways:
Supporting scholarly reading means supporting multiple activities and workflows.
If we are to build a tool that effectively supports the reading of academics and students, it will have to truly support the multitude of activities associated with that reading. It is not simply a question of consuming a single text, but interacting with that text, connecting it with others, and using it to create potentially multiple written works. What’s more, each scholarly reader has their own approach to these activities, which must be accommodated.
Value lies in managing a reader’s entire collection of texts.
Related to the previous point, it is clear that in order to be a truly valuable contribution to the current array of tools, ours must be able to cover a reader’s full collection of texts, not just some. This means offering the ability to create library entries not just for books available through a library, or just books available in web or EPUB. While some features may only be available for a subset texts, depending on format and availability, others must still be represented in the collection. Otherwise, this risks becoming one more tool in a chain, further complicating, rather than simplifying, users’ workflows. This also means the tool must also allow for the inclusion of all kinds of materials (from full books, to book chapters, journal articles, primary sources, images, audio, and perhaps others), and it should remain agnostic about where these materials are sourced from.
Print and digital coexist.
Print’s continuing popularity seems to come down to two drivers: habit and poor support of digital reading. While the latter of these is clearly something we seek to mitigate, that is far from an easy task, and the former is likely to remain entrenched for many years to come. As a result, the goal cannot be to try to replace print reading, but should instead be to complement it intelligently, and ensure that wherever possible, hybrid print/digital scholarly reading should be supported.
Access is critical.
This last point is perhaps less clear-cut than the others here, and emerged in a less explicit way from our interviews. The readers we interviewed represented a wide range of positions, even within a small group, and some clear differences in needs stood out. Many of the group touched on various issues relating to access, as did librarians, and our own philosophy means we take access and inclusive design seriously. As a result, to our minds, the development of our tool must take into consideration who will access it and how. This cannot be limited to permanent faculty with access to institutional resources. Students and contingent faculty tend to have less secure access to institutional resources, are more likely to change institutions (or leave them, temporarily or permanently), and often have very different working conditions from permanent faculty, yet make up a significant proportion of the users we envision benefitting from our tools. These user profiles will remain top of mind throughout development, and must be served just as well as the model of a “traditional” researcher.
These insights will continue to guide us as we move forward with the product development process, and influence the measures of success we establish along the way.