Funders, Open Infrastructure, and Coko

Carly Strasser May 7, 2018

Last week the Open Research Funders Group released results from a survey targeting funder perspectives on open infrastructure. Here at Coko we were excited to see the outcomes from the survey—after all, we create open infrastructure for research communication!

Of the 16 funders surveyed reported, two-thirds have funded open science or open access programs. This bodes well for openness, but perhaps the more interesting results stemmed from questions about open infrastructure. When asked about funding these types of projects, interest was ranked 3.5 out of 5. That’s certainly better than nothing, but it’s rather concerning that a group of funders committed to open research are not more passionately interested in establishing firm foundations on which to build out openness.

The moderate interest is likely an indication that open infrastructure projects need to tell their story better. What’s the value of open infrastructure? How will this project fit into the broader landscape? How will the project be sustained long-term? We list some of the top concerns from funders that came out of the survey and respond to each below:

10/12 were concerned about “avoiding competing or redundant open initiatives”

Coko believes that some redundancy and lots of reuse are both healthy and good for the broader ecosystem. Of course, there is a risk that funding is “wasted” on a project that will eventually prove less successful or garner less adoption. But we posit that it’s more risky to fund a single piece of software or advocate for a single solution that purports to meet all needs, particularly in these early days of rethinking our infrastructure to be more open. It is the entire community’s responsibility to combine efforts, reuse work where useful, and generally ensure the ecosystem of tools and software is diverse and thriving. One challenge particular to infrastructure is explaining its importance and/or clarifying the architecture. We should all be thinking about ways to explain our projects and their value in common, jargon-free ways that elucidate their importance for funders, researchers, and other community stakeholders.

8/12 had a “concern that materials made open by such projects are not widely used”

Adoption is the single largest challenge for any infrastructure project. We propose that projects should have adoption plans in place before they build—rather than the more common mentality of “if you build it they will come”. How can open infrastructure builders do this? By consistently engaging with the community before and during the development process. Getting buy-in from partners and understanding use cases before work begins is critical to ensuring long-term viability for projects. We further posit that an important role for funders is to support and encourage adoption activities alongside the building work. All too often funders focus on the thing being built rather than the community engagement needed to ensure adoption. This includes actively funding community outreach, adoption-related services, marketing, and business model planning.

8/12 were concerned that there would be “resistance from funded researchers that sharing data or materials may result in negative consequences (e.g., being scooped on scientific findings)”

Despite years openness advocacy and education, researchers still have plenty of misconceptions about the impacts of data sharing and open research more broadly. We must keep reminding them of the benefits, continue to work towards better incentive structures that encourage openness, and remind ourselves that this is a long game. Culture change is hard, and we still haven’t reached the tipping point for getting most researchers on board. But funders should look for opportunities to invest in tools and infrastructure that pave the way for making this tipping point possible. Infrastructure can pave the way for researchers to make better choices, for example offering streamlined and integrated pathways to deposit data at the time of publication or submission of a grant.

7/12 wanted to “ensure that our funding support is finite and not open-ended”

This is a perfectly reasonable reaction from any funder—they want their projects to be self-sustaining. Otherwise funding organizations would eventually become the equivalent of endowments, ensuring long-term viability of funded projects but not able to invest in innovation. More broadly, this concern speaks to the challenges of sustaining open infrastructure. We need realistic sustainability plans and timelines for infrastructures to reach self-sufficiency. Funders who provide “bridge funding” (i.e., providing just enough funding for organizations to live another year) aren’t giving them a realistic runway to sustainability. Those projects have a responsibility to the broader community to either develop sustainability models that will keep them afloat, or to bow out of the game gracefully. We also believe that institutions have a responsibility to pick up some of this financial slack. Open infrastructure is not free to run or develop, and academic organizations should consider investing in lieu of continued support for less open options (e.g., journal subscriptions).

An important note for funders—a large infrastructure project will likely take three to five years to be self-sustaining but most grants cover only one to two years. This forces the project to spend time fundraising that could be spent turning the project into a success.

7/12 were concerned with “marshaling organizational support, both financially and structurally, for these projects”

As a former funder, I understand the challenges of “selling” your projects internally to the bosses at a foundation. As we mentioned above, infrastructure is hard to explain and not necessarily the most interesting project on any docket. They also aren’t by nature inexpensive. As open infrastructure project leads, we have a responsibility to help funders craft their story to ensure they both understand and believe in the project we are asking them to fund.

We have a long way to go before shared, open infrastructure is the norm for scholarly communication and research. However, reports like the one published by ORFG will help us better articulate our vision as a community, and will hopefully accelerate us toward our goals.

Infrastructure is important! CC-BY-NC Thomas Hawk

About the Author

Carly Strasser

Carly is the Director of Strategic Development for Coko.

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