Cutting the Cord

New study points to weaknesses in funding agencies' efforts to gauge "sustainability" of digital-resource projects.
June 14, 2011

The National Science Digital Library had ambitious goals when it started in 2000: create a massive open repository of STEM learning materials culled from projects funded by its benefactor, the National Science Foundation; then organize these materials so that they could be easily cherry-picked and used by science and math instructors, from higher ed all the way down. The NSF poured well over $100 million into the project.

Just over a decade later, the science digital library is on death row. It is set to be stripped of all funds in 2012, “based in part on recent evaluation findings that point to the challenges of sustaining such a program in the face of changing technology and the ways educators now find and use classroom materials,” according to a foundation directorate issued in February.

Preservation is often the goal of such “digital resource projects,” a recent species of nonprofit venture that typically works toward developing, analyzing, and improving access to digital collections. But what happens when the projects themselves don’t keep?

That is the meta-concern at the center of “Funding for Sustainability,” a new study by the nonprofit research group Ithaka S+R. The National Science Digital Library is not the only digital resource project to go belly-up; many other projects have suffered the same fate after failing to stand on their own legs after their seed funding ran dry. And while a certain rate of failure is accepted as part of the risk of funding start-up projects, the Ithaka researchers observed chronic weaknesses in how foundation-funded digital resource projects are vetted for “sustainability” -- weaknesses that could be leading foundations to place more bad bets than they should.

Funding agencies are typically thorough in telling applicants what they will need to do in order to build something that will have enduring value beyond the life of the grant, the Ithaka investigators said. But the agencies are less vigilant in requiring applicants to “think deeply about the financial and other resources a project will require post-grant in order to accomplish these tasks and reach these sustainability goals,” they wrote.

More often, the applicants can satisfy the former with general, aspirational statements such as, “We will continue to revise and update content, build traffic to the website and upgrade software,” says the study. However, “they are rarely asked to outline a clear, plausible vision of the activities this will involve after the grant expires, or to gauge the likelihood of success in acquiring and maintaining the resources — financial or otherwise — needed to support this work over time.”

As it turns out, many digital resource projects stand to face the same obstacles of “changing technology” and evolving user practices that reportedly sank the National Science Digital Library. Foundations and grantees rarely seek to account for the definition of “sustainability” varying by project or changing over time, says the report.

“While several years ago it might have been obvious that a research article in the humanities would not require much more than safe deposit in a reliable repository, what about scholarly articles of the not-too-distant future — published first in digital format, perhaps with multimedia features embedded in them, and whose authors want to update them?” the Ithaka investigators write.

“Put simply,” they continue, “the intention to grow and update the digital resource — rather than the format itself — drives the need to deeply consider plans for its long-term sustainability.”

Beyond the tendency to gloss over the specific meaning and implications of “sustainability” in the context of different projects, the study found that foundations tend to rely heavily on the largesse of the host institution — in many cases, a university — as insurance in case the project ends up being incapable of supporting itself without help.

These findings may resonate in the area of digital open courseware, where even the most “successful” projects, such as MIT OpenCourseWare and Yale’s Open Courses, continue to face questions of financial sustainability as they sever the umbilical cord to the foundations that helped birth them. Meanwhile, as demand for digitization and open courseware funding remains high, foundations continue investing heavily in projects that aspire to sustainability.

Catherine Casserly, who has worked for both the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning, said that part of the reason foundations might have trouble vetting digital resource projects for sustainability is that many do not have extensive business training and tend not to think in such exacting financial terms as the average venture capitalist. “We’re not deeply steeped in that sector,” she says. “So because of that there’s a natural gap when we then begin to overlay sustainability as the critical endpoint of these projects.”

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