This post was written by Asura Enkhbayar (IOI) in collaboration with Maggie Jack, an ethnographer who worked with IOI on this research.

Three months ago, we described our plan to map the costs of open infrastructures with three steps. Our first step was a conceptual framework that centers community in open infrastructure with the concept of transformative influence; we have already applied this framework to a select group of open infrastructure projects. The second step is an analysis of the current state of public funding data on open infrastructure, which includes definitions of key terms and concepts in our analysis. In this blog post, we start our exploration of the third step, an investigation of the “hidden” costs of operating open infrastructures. This third step complemented our theoretical and quantitative analyses in the first two steps with an empirical qualitative research approach.

In a series of interviews with infrastructure providers, we set out to talk about the “hidden” costs of operating infrastructures, struggles around sustainability and funding models, different forms of governance, and the cost of community engagement. We then conducted focus groups with representatives of funding bodies and institutional budget owners. We explored their efforts to support open infrastructure, near-term and long-term strategies, and informational needs for effective decision-making processes.

Our approach

Working with ethnographic researcher Maggie Jack, we conducted a series of interviews with the providers of the following nine infrastructure services: Open Journal Systems, OSF Preprints, Mukurtu, DSpace, Zenodo, SciELO, ORCID iD, Crossref Metadata Retrieval, and The DOI® System (Project Jupyter did not participate in the interviews). You can read more about our selection process in this previous blog post. Our goal was to investigate the hidden costs of running and maintaining open infrastructure services contextualized in their histories. We invited project leads to expand on the notion of costs beyond what may be reported in an annual budget or public filing in order to capture a fuller picture of what it takes to provide a scholarly infrastructure service.

In addition to interviewing project leaders, we also conducted two focus groups with representatives from funding bodies and institutions to learn more about their decision making processes when it came to making open infrastructure investments. These focus groups were centered around the exploration of the goals, needs, and challenges that funders and institutions face in their decision-making function. We targeted the tensions between the real costs of operating open infrastructure and existing funding structures, as well as the concrete needs of those funders and institutions in terms of decision-making.

The following representatives accepted our invitations to participate in the focus groups:

* indicates past or current funders of open infrastructure. A full list of our funding can be found here.

These nine interviews and two focus groups, combined with a pre-interview questionnaire that collected comparable information on the current state of the projects, provide a rich description of past and current challenges and ongoing infrastructure needs of these projects. We want to thank Maggie Jack who went through these rich descriptions and distilled emergent themes across these interviews with project leads, funders, and institutional leads.

Initial findings

Four primary topics emerged in these conversations. In the coming weeks we will expand our discussion of these topics and additional themes, but below are brief descriptions to start these conversations.

  1. Revisiting sustainability. National investors, funders and libraries want to find clear sustainability models but few have cracked the “sustainability nut” yet. In a sea of funding/business models, criteria catalogs and assessment frameworks, and acquisitions and mergers, one question keeps surfacing: What exactly is sustainability and whom does it serve? In other words, we strongly suggest revisiting and questioning our understanding of sustainability.

  2. The cost of community engagement. The turn to community is well underway in research and scholarship expressed by an increasing interest in and demand for community governance and participation. The implementation, however, always comes with significant costs for the service provider and even the financially stable projects reported struggling to meet the cost of community engagement. We observe a tension between the demand for and ways of funding community engagement in the scholarly space.

  3. Funding for general operational costs. In our analysis, the “hidden” costs of legal protections against bad faith actors or the emotional cost of a continuous grant-seeking cycle.. The consensus, however, was that most hidden costs are typically quite visible and well-known to the projects themselves. They cite challenges making everyday maintenance costs especially while relying on time-limited funding.

  4. The lack of information sharing and coordination. National funders, philanthropies, and institutional budget owners alike struggle to stay on top of the ever-changing landscape of open infrastructure. Coordinated efforts to standardize and share information about service providers would not only help funders in decision-making but also avoid the repetition of costly documentation work for applicants. Funders also mentioned a desire for collective efforts in the development of vocabularies for organizational structures and governance and risk-assessment to “mark the thin ice” in the landscape of open infrastructures.

What’s next

The IOI team had a few busy weeks but we are excited that a few big announcements are coming up over the next few weeks. Stay tuned to learn more about:

  • The launch of a prototype of the Catalog of Open Infrastructure services (COIs) which is the culmination of our work on mapping the costs of open infrastructure.
  • The full report of our findings from our conversations with open infrastructure providers, representatives of funding bodies, and institutional budget owners detailing the (con)tensions of funding open infrastructure.
  • Last but not least, IOI is growing and changing as an organization too. We will soon be announcing exciting additions to our core team as well as the community governance structure.
Posted by Asura Enkhbayar