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July 15, 2009, 10:58 AM ET

How to Help Digital Resources Thrive, Even in Hard Times

A just-released series of case studies takes a close look at 12 digital projects to figure out what sustainability strategies have — and haven’t — worked for them. The report, “Sustaining Digital Resources: An On-the-Ground View of Projects Today,” was prepared by Ithaka S&R, the strategy-and-research division of the Ithaka group, a nonprofit outfit that promotes the use of digital technologies in research and teaching. The new study follows up an Ithaka report released in May 2008, “Sustainability and Revenue Models for Online Academic Resources.”

Analyzing the various projects, the report identified a constellation of factors that help a digital resource succeed. It notes that there is no clear formula for success but that “dedicated and entrepreneurial leadership” plays a vital role. So does the ability to make a project’s value clear to users, host institutions, and outside partners. Most of the projects studied rely on hybrid models — for instance, mixing subscription and open-access components, or drawing on institutional support as well as revenue generated by commercial arrangements.

An expanded definition of “sustainability” has emerged. “Sustaining the value of the resource requires more than just ‘keeping the lights on,’” the report says. To stay alive and vital, a digital resource has to evolve along with its users. Its leaders must make its value crystal clear to those who control the purse strings. Project leaders must keep costs low and think creatively about new sources of income. And they cannot take the support of host institutions for granted.

“Whether it’s an advertising model, whether it’s an endowment model, whether it’s a subscription model, you’ve got to figure out how to lower your costs,” Laura Brown, director of Ithaka S&R, told The Chronicle on Tuesday. The trick is “disciplining the way these projects think without knocking them out.”

Nancy L. Maron, one of the report’s co-authors, said that “one of the greatest values of these cases is that the project leaders were not afraid to tell us about the challenges they’ve had.”

In this economy, “they’re all challenged,” Ms. Brown said, which makes it even more urgent that administrators of digital resources understand and explore all the options available to them. “There’s too much value being produced by this not to come to a deeper understanding of how it can persist as a solution” for scholarly communication.

Money for the case studies came from Britain’s Joint Information Systems Committee and from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation. Nine of the 12 resources surveyed are based either in the United States or in Britain; the remaining three are French, German, and Egyptian.

To be included, a project had to have a track record long enough to be useful and leadership willing to be frank about successes and failures. Projects surveyed include humanities and social-science endeavors such as the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, an online library of classical Greek literature at the University of California at Irvine, and Electronic Enlightenment at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The series also features science-based endeavors such as eBird, run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. —Jennifer Howard

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