New business models for subscription services?

There are a lot of subscription based models around for access to data services. I notice this more since I’ve been working for UK HE/FE. One example of such a service is the SCRAN image archive, another is the Statistical Accounts of Scotland.

The subscription-based model has to expose something to prove it’s worth subscribing to, so there are different ways in which the line limiting access is drawn, for example,

  • Access to metadata records is free, data is subscription based
  • Access to lower-resolution data (e.g thumbnails, excerpts) is free, access to “quality” content is subscription based
  • Access to original materials (scans) are free, access to “added-value” services (full-text and metadata search, transcriptions) are subscription based

At institutional level, income from subscriptions is seen as important. It compensates for the initial setup work that has gone into providing the service – digitisation of physical stuff, manual work on getting metadata right, development work providing search and explore interfaces. Once this initial cost is offset, income from subscriptions helps to cover the cost of hosting and keeping systems up, developing new features, managing user requests, keeping the institutional structure generally in place.

These costs need to be covered. The income from subscription may not be great, and a good proportion of it may be offset by the cost of administering the subscriptions and handling authentication. But these costs are often subsumed by other parts of the institution’s budget; they are not direct costs.

How can all these costs be covered while maintaining open access to services?

We think we know a lot about the benefits of open access to data and services; more re-use increases the “value” in information, leads to more innovative applications, more social benefit, ultimately more economic benefit. But the individual institution by necessity is in its corner; arguments about wider benefit don’t alter the need to make the rent. Its income and expenses are isolated, administratively, and subscription based revenues are culturally important.

One answer is subsidy, but this is not a “business model”. The “economic climate” dictates that libraries and data archives are already experiencing budget cuts and resource struggles, the long timescale of their funding systems means that any renewed flow of support will happen years after the “real economy” is already considered to have recovered. The ability to demonstrate an independent flow of income from subscription seems more apparently valuable than ever.

I feel blinded by the bright light of the bleeding obvious. I’ve spent my working life in environments where free access to information and services is supported outright in different ways – by commercial consultancy, by advertising revenue, by pure subsidy (whether Arts Council grants or European Commission projects), or by a combination of sponsorship (money, or time) and volunteer energy. I’ve learned to take open data for granted.

Now I come to realise that there are many institutions holding a large volume of really interesting data who are in a grey area; not-for-profit, yet run operationally like a commercial entity, to whom these different models for ensuring open access to the knowledge they produce don’t apply. Critically, these institutions aren’t able to freely re-use each others’ data to enrich their own, and perhaps reach an upper layer of “added value” which can be tapped to offer some financial support.

So, I want to know if there’s a business model, or many, than can help replace the need for subscription limiting access to data services run by not-for-profit institutions, and support open data. “Updater pays” doesn’t apply through historic, archival data. I suspect the answer lies in some kind of collectivity; alone, we are weak, but united we are strong. Where can I see the thinking being done about this?

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