Case Study: Project Euclid, Cornell University and Duke University Press

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Contributed by Terry Ehling, Director, Center for Innovative Publishing, Cornell University Library

Ten years ago the Cornell University Library, with the encouragement of the university’s department of mathematics and statistics, undertook an initiative designed to provide small, independent mathematics journals with an online publishing option. The majority of non-commercial journals in mathematics had yet to establish a footprint on the Internet by 2000. By early in the decade, however, academic libraries were beginning to favor internet delivery over paper editions for most STM serials.

With Project Euclid, the Cornell University Libraries decided to become an active agent in this transition by offering small publishers of scholarly journals a model, a platform, and a cost structure that would encourage them to shift their attention and investment from print to electronic. With funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Cornell developed an online publishing service designed to support the transition of small, non-commercial mathematics journals from paper to digital distribution. In May of 2003, Euclid launched with nineteen journals.

Over the next three years Project Euclid spent down its initial funding and by late 2005 had achieved a measure of financial stability: the number of partner journals had more than doubled, to forty-four; it had captured one hundred five institutional subscriptions; and it closed the fiscal year cash positive. But by 2006 it had become clear that its operating model was under stress. Gross revenues from subscriptions were increasing at significant rates, but so were expenses. Net income at the close of the fiscal year provided Euclid with a modest surplus, but not nearly enough to capitalize growth and remain competitive.

Acting on its own, Cornell found that it needed to replicate the operating structure of a small publishing house. Project Euclid’s success was dependent on the library developing traditional but cost-efficient publishing functions—including acquisition, production, design, marketing and order fulfillment. It was, in effect, deploying a revenue-capture model within a cost-focused culture. Euclid’s entrepreneurial status fostered interdependence with disparate units within the library and with a stable of ungovernable vendors and service providers outside the university. Project Euclid was able to weather the transition from the incubator to the marketplace by outsourcing its marketing program and repurposing library personnel hired and trained for more conventional job functions—for example, a department accountant assumed responsibility for subscription order fulfillment.

It was clear that a long-term strategy for Project Euclid needed to include a business partner who would share the library’s principal goals for the venture, while meeting a growing desire on the part of the publishers for a deeper and more diverse portfolio of services. Duke University Press’s relationship with Project Euclid reached back to the initiative‘s blueprint phase. Over a two-year period beginning in mid-2000 Duke supported contract negotiations, TEX consulting, and marketing in support of Euclid’s launch. Duke, as publisher of the Duke Mathematical Journal, was also one of Project Euclid‘s most significant content partners. As the relationship between Cornell and Duke matured, both parties agreed to explore the benefits and consequences of entering into a formal partnership for joint management of Project Euclid. Cornell and Duke were shepherded through the year-long negotiation process by SPARC, and a formal joint venture agreement was signed in March, 2008.

Duke’s primary investment in Euclid is in human capital; it hired a dedicated project manager and quickly incorporated Euclid into its marketing, financial, and order fulfillment workflows—areas where Cornell was incurring the greatest resource deficits. The partners agreed to divide their management responsibilities along naturally occurring lines of specialization: the library would continue to support the technology infrastructure (architecture, code base, hardware, and network support) and provide archiving and preservation services.

While the Cornell-Duke partnership is still in its early stages, a number of early observations are worth noting:

  • Supporting a revenue-generating publishing operation can stretch the resources of a library for which staff expertise lies elsewhere. For publishing initiatives such as Euclid, which provide services for publishers and audiences with no specific relationship to the participating library, partnering with a press familiar with serving such external constituencies can make considerable sense.
  • Most library-publisher projects have involved both entities jointly incubating, implementing and then managing the initiative. But a “relay” model, where one party provides early-stage development and then the other assumes operational responsibility for a more mature product or service, might also be politically and economically desirable.
  • While collaboration between a library and a press at the same institution seems logistically obvious and desirable, joint efforts involving libraries and presses that do not share the same genetic material can produce products and services that play to the unique strengths of each institution