With academia increasingly being abused by budget cuts whilst at the same time being overtaken by the language of business, profit, and sustainability, new ways are being sought to gain funds to subsidize academic projects and publications. Especially scholarly publishers within the Humanities and Social Sciences (be they not-for-profit or commercial) have become accustomed to the mixing of and the experimenting with business and revenue models. As the specialized scholarly book has developed into a format from which it has become very hard to gain a profit (mainly due to library budget cuts, the main buyers of academic books), in most cases (cross-) subsidizing schemes are now a necessity for publishers.
Joseph Esposito gives a nice overview of the different business models in use in scholarly communication in his blog post What We Talk About When We Talk About Business Models: A Bestiary of Revenue Streams. In this post he zooms in on revenue streams derived by publishers using traditional or ‘user-pays’ publishing, author-pays publishing, institutional sponsoring, marketing services, ‘freemium’ publishing and licensing. And, as he confirms, in many cases content is made available by the aid of a hybrid model, in which revenue streams from the different categories mentioned above get mixed up in various forms and models. In a later post entitled The Membership Business Model for Scholarly Communications, Esposito discusses another business model, one which I want to explore more deeply here, namely the one in which ‘a group of people working in the same area (the area does not have to be academic research) might decide that they have a shared interest in publishing some of their material. They thus pool their resources, appoint individuals to oversee the publications, establish policies, and make the material available to fellow members of the community.’
‘At first glance, the membership model appears to be a form of user-pays publishing, as access to content requires a fee. But this model differs from the traditional one in its reciprocal nature: One fee provides access to both content (like the user-pays model) and to the publishing process itself (like the author-pays model). It’s thus very much a community model of publishing, where membership has its privileges.’
It’s the later two aspects described by Esposito that I am most interested in here, namely the concept of community and the idea of member privileges. For the model I want to focus on here, the crowd-funding model—well known from popular platforms such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo—can be seen as a combination of the membership model and the Maecenas model I have written about before, but now targeted to the web. In this model the traditional ‘community model of publishing’ is being exported to the web and tried out in new forms and with a new, potentially global, community. At the moment this model is mainly being used in or experimented with in artistic and creative projects, but it has already been tried out extensively in other fields, media and formats too. The idea behind this model is that a community of people with an interest in (the funding of) a certain project, donate a small sum to support the project or to pledge for the project, in return for which they get ‘access’ to the project or gain certain ‘privileges’ (such as special previews, a copy of the final book/record/movie, a dedication in said media, or in some cases even a chance to go out for lunch with the artist).
My current aim is to explore in what way this model might work for academic book publishing in the Humanities and Social Sciences, in specific in combination with an effort towards increasing accessibility and stimulating (Gold) Open Access publishing. However, before I go on to explore the different possibilities such a system might offer, note that I see the current proposal or set of ideas as an urgent necessity, a necessity to look for and experiment with new revenue streams and business models to help the specialized monograph survive, to make its creation and dissemination possible and to safeguard its existence. At the same time I see the ideas and possibilities explained and examined here as the nadir of what academic publishing has become, as an exemplar of the strains academic authors, publishers and their institutions have to go through to get their projects funded and their work published. Projects that society should deem important enough to fund from the outset, work that should be made accessible by default and not only when it is able to make a profit. The idea of crowd-funding a project or a publication in many ways reveals what the modern academic has become, spending increasing amounts of her/his/their ‘research time’ on securing internal or external funding, and on managing the paperwork that comes with that. The crowd-funding model, at least the one that is made popular by platforms like Kickstarter, might push the scholar to an even further extreme, were she/he/they will have to become a performer, playing out an act, juggling expertise, expected research outcomes, and promised deliverables in a snappy marketing video. All in order to persuade an already over-commercialized public to spend money on this specific, unique, and important project—instead of on one of the other hundreds of endangered publications—in a race for the competition of who can make the best promo clip.
An example of how this can become a bit ridiculous, or better said, ‘problematic’, is sketched out by this recent article from The New York Times, that shows how, in order to obtain funding, two biologists ventured into selling t-shirts and trading cards in an effort dubbed by The Times similar to an ‘online bake sale’. The question is, are we headed towards a world in which scholars will increasingly have to become performers to obtain funding, for example by giving talks before paying audiences—which seems to be a growing trend—mimicking super-star scholarly authors such as Žižek? This trend is also visible in the increasingly popular format of the TED talks for instance (although TED does not pay its speakers, it is definitely a marketing device for authors). Will scholars be forced to go the same path literary authors have already gone, making money to finance their projects, publications and livelihoods by giving readings, signing books and selling merchandise? Increasingly it seems that in the present climate, with a lack of commercial interest for profit making, a lack of institutional backing, and a lack of (alternative) patronage systems in place in many of the countries hit by budget cuts, scholars, educators, authors and artists will have to go to drastic measures. Will this be the consequence of a society in which culture and scholarship are no longer seen as a necessity or as a public good? And aren’t we with that, as Žižek noted in a recent talk in London, killing of exactly those ‘traditional western standards and norms and values’ that the current right-wing European governments are at the same time craving to restore and maintain?
On the other hand, although the crowd-funding model showcases the extremes scholars have to go to nowadays to get money, it also offers many real possibilities. Against the gloomy vision sketched above, we should not underestimate the power of the community, and the self-organizing skills of the public sphere, when the commercial powers and the institutions that govern us increasingly abandon the Humanities and Social Sciences. Let’s get together with both our peers and with the wider community out there to discuss what we deem worthy research. Research that merits publication, research that deserves to be spread more widely.
So what is new about this crowd-funding model? As I stated before, it combines a membership model with a sponsorship model. In this way the statement made by Esposito that ‘a society that makes its content available through open access may experience declining interest among its members to continue paying membership dues’, underestimates the ideologies that trigger people, like for instance doing things for a common good, to support a certain charity or a certain goal—like increasing accessibility to scholarly publications. Furthermore the crowd-funding model finds a solution for another problem in the membership model Esposito notices, namely, as he states, ‘what, after all, is the point of being in a community unless it serves to define those who are outside it?’ The crowd-funding model no longer defines a community by giving it privileged access to the outcomes of the project—to the final publication—but to the process itself. It makes the community part of the process in a way. Crowd-funders thus become both member and part of a specific project (whilst attaining certain benefits at the same time). And this can very well go hand in hand with financing an openly available outcome at the same time. As the NYT article states ‘generosity — of the crowds will come to the rescue.’
One of the problems noted in the NYT article however is the lack of a review system with crowd-funded projects. With this they mean a lack of a peer review system by experts of course, as a crowd selection system is already part of the crowd-funding process. As the article states, ‘most crowd funding platforms thrive on transparency and a healthy dose of self-promotion but lack the safeguards and expert assessment of a traditional review process.’ However, peer review can of course take place at several stages during a project (for instance on acquiring funding, during the process of the project, during the publication phase and after the publication). These selection and quality assessment processes can be build into a crowd-funding model. Crowd-funding is just another revenue stream and needs not be without peer review or branding. A journal, publisher or a group of peer scientists can still endorse a project after or even before it has attained crowd-sourced funding. I think the problem these kind of new revenue models target has to do with the fact that projects that do measure up to quality and peer review standards, do not necessary have the funding to carry out these projects or to make the outcomes (openly) available. Competition has become harsh, and as Jean-Claude Guédon has showed us, the present system is mostly catering to let the best of scientific outcomes prevail. However, as Guédon also argues, the issue of excellence should not come to substitute quality thresholds.
The idea of crowd-sourcing funding for academic endeavors has already led to a few experimental platforms, of which the most promising might be the Italian Open Genius project, set up by Andrea Gaggioli. Open Genius, in adopting crowd-funding to scholarship, specifically focuses on the quality evaluation element. As Gaggioli and his colleague Riva write in a Science article here, ‘to assist (non-specialist) investors in deciding the awarding of contributions (and to audit thereafter), a peer-review procedure could be used. (…) Fraud could be prevented by implementing a reputation system (…) and by indicating the scientific track record of the proponent.’ As it states on its website, Open Genius is a not-for-profit initiative set up by the scientific community. It also lists it motives for using crowd-funding on its website and states it wants ‘to increase the resources for research, to reduce the gap between science and the public, to enhance transparency in funding allocation and use, and to inform donors about the results of their investments.’ The idea behind Open Genius is again that crowd-funding is seen as an additional revenue stream, where it looks to partner with similar academic, philanthropic or government funding initiatives. Their ideological background is also clear from their choice for open-source software and platforms. Ironically however, although the thinking behind this project seems solid, it hasn’t actually commenced yet, as it lacks the funds needed to start accepting proposals.
Where Open Genius is mostly focusing on funding whole (academic) projects, there are already some crowd-sourcing experiments up-and-running that focus more specifically on the funding of (literary) book publications. One of them is the Unbound Books platform, which works similar to Kickstarter but at the same time takes on a more traditional publishers role, as Unbound’s cofounder John Mitchinson states in an interview with Fast Company here: ‘we’re managing the back end in a way that Kickstarter doesn’t,” (…) “They’re a pure fundraising platform” (…)”We’re printing and distributing and finding the market for the books”. This publisher’s involvement has however led to forms of critique, as it is not a ‘pure’ crowd-sourcing project. Also, as is stated in this article by Bobbie Johnson, the problem with the Unbound Books model is that they got the underlying idea of ‘community’ wrong that seems to be essential when it comes to crowd-funding: the idea of ‘by the community and for the community’. As Johnson states: ‘It’s really about communities choosing their own destinies. As with crowdsourcing before it, there needs to be a real sense of involvement and authenticity if projects are to be about more than just doing things inexpensively.’
This idea of keeping traditional publishing functions alive whilst at the same time focusing more on the idea of community seems to be much better implemented in the Cursor platform set up by Richard Nash especially for book communities. The first community set up with Cursor is Red Lemonade. In an interview with Richard Nash by Digital Book World’s Rich Fahle, Nash states that Cursor is set up as a platform for publisher to also become membership organizations. Getting fans, writers and other interested parties to become members and comment upon each other’s work is the basis of the platform. The community then becomes the sole source of books to publish. In this way Nash’s project is more about ‘social publishing’, about the relationships between writers and readers. As Nash further states in this article in Publishers Weekly, ‘Cursor will establish a portfolio of self-reinforcing online membership communities’, a kind of ecosystem offering different publishing services.
These are all valuable insights and lessons to learn when thinking about applying a crowd-funding model to academic book publishing. One benefit of applying this model to academia is that the academic world already has a strong communal background in the form of disciplines and networks and formal and informal ties between publishers, authors, libraries, and journals (amongst others). And perhaps even more than in literary publishing, the writers of scholarly works are also the readers of these scholarly works. Furthermore, an elaborate communication and marketing network to keep up and strengthen the bonds between these communities is already in place in the form of mailing lists, blogs, (social) research platforms etc. And many of these digital platforms are from the outset already integrally connected to the rest of the web and the wider community of interest. Finally, as already mentioned above, the community ideology and the idea of sustaining and making accessible publications and research outcomes for the wider community fits in very well with Open Access principles and open source ideologies as they are at play within scholarly communication.
So, what could such a crowd-funding model for academic books look like? Underneath a very initial draft model.
First of all, as mentioned before, peer review and branding can very much be part of this model, as publishers or (groups of) authors can pre-select projects, endorse projects, or can conduct various forms of open and/or closed peer review as part of the project or publication process at different stages of its development. Also, crowd-funding can apply to already (traditionally) published and peer reviewed books, for instance to assist in making them openly accessible. A few different scenarios:
– A book can be funded from its initial idea (more of a project fund in a way). Scholars can submit a proposal (a draft chapter, a promo video) plus a reward scheme for those who pledge a certain amount of money. For instance, funders could pledge 15 euro and receive a free paperback of the book (where students could get the same for only 10 euro). There could also be schemes for libraries, where they receive a print copy after pledging a certain sum.
– Secondly, there could be an option to fund an Open Access edition of an already existing print book or of a book that will soon be available in print. At the moment projects like OAPEN.nl are looking into getting Open Access editions funded by government or funding institutions, by separating the costs of the Open Access edition from the costs of the printed edition. Another option, next to or instead of this institutional funding, could be to get the Open Access edition funded via crowd-sourcing.
– Thirdly, the publication of a dissertation could be funded via crowd-sourcing platforms. Dissertations, although in most cases highly peer reviewed, are hard to get published at the moment due to their often highly specialized nature and the lack of build-up prestige of their authors (early-career scholars).
– Fourth, if you fund a book you can get access to the way it develops. Following the idea of increased transparency or openness, crowd-funding could mean gaining access (for the funder or for the wider community) to the notes, updates, initial findings etc of the research project as it develops. This will draw the community closer towards a project and will also make them the initial pool of commentators (or even reviewers) of the document-in-development. Both authors and readers gain to profit from such a model, close to the ideas surrounding ‘social publishing’ as promoted by Nash.
A motion towards Open Access can be part of all these models, as an online version can be made available free for all—under a CC-license for instance—as a first requirement or outcome of all of these models. The community on which these models can be based, will first of all be made up of scholars in a certain field, but can be extended to students, libraries, other scholars in adjacent fields, the general public, companies (supporting publications as a charity cause for instance) etc. And again, different communities, and different projects, can exist on one platform.
It’s hard to say whether such a model might actually work, as much depends on, as said before, the willingness of a specific community to support projects and on the right model or platform. And again, although this might be just another revenue stream in that increasingly popular ‘hybrid model’ used to get publications funded, as long as it is working towards getting important and valuable research results out there, it is a shot worth taking.