Key Sustainability Strategy Entities (version 2)

2 Sep

This is a second guest post by Brian Lavoie of OCLC, my partner in the Sustainability Reference Model project. This is the draft for a critical section of the reference model.

KEY ENTITIES (version 2)

The economic environment surrounding any digital curation activity is complex, involving a host of factors interacting to shape the circumstances in which a particular activity must operate. Understanding this environment, and its implications for achieving sustainability, can be challenging. Fortunately, it is possible to distill the economic environment into a few key elements are present in all digital curation contexts. A thorough understanding of these elements and their properties is a first and necessary step toward building a successful sustainability strategy.

Digital Assets

Digital assets are the raison d’être of a digital curation activity. They can take a wide range of forms: research data sets, e-prints, executable software, web sites, and so on. To qualify as a digital asset, two criteria must be met: first (and obviously), the object in question must be digital, and second, it must be judged to have a value that will persist over some period of time. The second criterion is crucial, and must be considered carefully by digital curators in the context of any curation activity: is the digital object in question truly a digital asset? The question is not trivial: not all digital objects are digital assets!

Each class of digital assets exhibits a variety of properties that to a greater or lesser extent have an appreciable impact on the nature of the curation activity itself. This can be readily seen from the perspective of the technical aspects of curation: the techniques and workflows needed to curate a collection of research data sets are likely to be very different from those needed to curate a collection of executable software. In the same way, the properties of digital assets impact the strategies needed to support the curation activity from an economic standpoint. As in the technical sphere, different kinds of digital assets will have special properties that impact sustainability in unique ways. However, digital assets also share certain core properties that must be taken into consideration when organizing a curation activity.

  • Digital assets are durable yet depreciable: If kept in proper condition, digital assets can continue to release value for scholarship, private enterprise, education, and entertainment over extended periods of time. However, the clause “if kept in proper condition” is crucial. In order to maintain digital assets’ value over time, those responsible for their stewardship will need to expend resources on an ongoing basis to support their curation. Digitals assets are depreciable in the sense that if not properly maintained, they will tend to deteriorate or become technologically obsolete , and in this way, their ability to release value to users will be reduced and eventually eliminated.

The implication of this property for economic sustainability is clear: in assessing the costs of a proposed curation activity, planners must look beyond the current costs of gathering digital assets into a collection and consider something akin to “total cost of ownership”. What will be the costs of maintaining the collection in a usable condition for an extended period of time? And what mechanisms can be put in place to support a sustained flow of resources to the curation activity? From the outset, curation planners must discard notions of one-time chunks of funding, and think instead in terms of ongoing flows of funding. [see BRTF Report, p. 25-26]

  • Digital assets can be curated by one, but used by many: A digital asset residing on a public server is, at least in principal, accessible to any Web-enabled user. In this sense, the user base for a curated digital asset is potentially far larger than that of a “physical” item – e.g., a print book. Moreover, a digital asset can be used simultaneously by many users, again in contrast to a physical item, where use by one generally precludes use by another (again, consider a print book). Expressed In economic terms, the use of digital materials is non-rival in consumption.

The important implication of this property for economic sustainability is that although the potential user community – in other words, those that benefit from curation – is potentially quite large, the incentive to contribute resources to the curation activity by any one user is generally weak. Once a digital asset is curated by one organization, it is at least in theory available for use by all; there is no need for each organization to curate a local copy of the digital asset, as long as a single curated copy is available on the Web. In contrast, there is a far stronger need to curate local copies of print materials, since a particular print copy can only serve a limited pool of primarily local users. Since one organization can curate a digital asset on behalf of all, it tends to be in the interest of any one organization to have someone else incur the trouble and expense of curation, while still enjoying free access to the digital assets. This is what economists call the free-rider problem, which can make collection of sufficient resources among beneficiaries to sustain the curation activity a challenge. To overcome this problem, it may be necessary to exclude some beneficiaries from access to the digital assets if they do not contribute toward curation. If the planners for a curation activity are not prepared to exclude non-contributors, or for some reason it is impossible to do so, this may create significant problems for long-term sustainability; the incentives for contribution to the activity will likely be weak. [see BRTF Report, p. 26-28]


Long-term accessibility to digital assets is achieved through the curation process, which is the set of activities involved in maintaining digital assets in a usable form for an extended period of time. It is important to distinguish between the process of digital curation, and the outputs of digital curation. In particular, the value of digital curation is experienced through the value-creating capacity of the curated digital assets themselves. Put another way, we generally do not value curation for the sake of curation; we value it because of the uses to which we can put curated digital assets. This establishes an important property of the curation process that is crucial when considering economic sustainability.

  • The value of the curation process (and the associated digital information service in which it is embedded)  is derived from the value-from-use of the curated digital assets: A curation activity that cannot make a compelling case for the value of the curated digital assets that it manages will find it difficult to attract the funding and other resources needed to sustain itself over time. This ties in with the distinction noted above between digital objects and digital assets. A digital asset is a digital object with a perceived future value. The value of the curation process, therefore, derives from its ability to deliver the value of the digital asset. In economic terms the demand for digital curation services – i.e., the curation process – is a derived demand: in other words, it is derived from the demand for curated digital assets. [see BRTF Report, p. 24-25]

Naturally, many of the activities associated with the curation process are technical in nature, consisting of curation techniques and workflows invoked on the digital assets to ensure they persist in a suitable condition for use. For the purposes of economic analysis, however, it is not the technical aspects of the curation process which are key; instead, it is the decision-making process that overarches the day-to-day management of curated digital assets. The decision-making processes associated with digital curation also exhibit several properties relevant to consider in regard to economic sustainability.

  • Curation decision-making is path-dependent: Digital materials pass through a sequence of stages, also called a lifecycle, with endpoints of creation and disposal. Decisions made at one stage of the lifecycle often shape the choices available to decision-makers at later stages. This point is illustrated in its starkest terms by the initial choice of whether or not to curate; if the decision is “no”, it is often impossible to revisit and change this decision at a future date, because by then the digital asset may be unavailable or have deteriorated to such an extent that effective curation becomes prohibitively expensive or even infeasible. [see BRTF Report, p. 28-30]


The network of stakeholders surrounding a particular curation activity can be complex and difficult to characterize. However, some of this complexity can be diminished with the aid of high-level abstraction that helps organize stakeholders into broad categories of interest. These categories are:

  • Supply-side stakeholders: those who have a role in the provision of digital assets and curation activities.

o      Creators: entities responsible for creating digital assets (e.g., scientist who creates a data set; artist who creates a digital work of art; company that develops a new computer game)

o      Rights Holders: entities who currently own key intellectual property rights related to digital assets, such as the right to provide access, the right to preserve, etc. Oftentimes this will be the same entity that created the digital asset, but not always. For example, a publishing company may hold the rights to an e-journal article authored by someone else; a social media site may own the collective contributions of its members, etc.

o      Managing Agencies: entities responsible for managing/curating/preserving/providing access to digital assets. Essentially, this is the entity that actually has custody of the material and ensures that is continues to exist and is accessible for use.

  • Demand-side stakeholders: those who benefit from curated  digital assets.

o      Current beneficiaries: those who currently have well-defined uses for the digital asset, and derive value from its ongoing availability.

o      Future beneficiaries: those who could be expected to benefit from the digital asset in the future, or those whose uses of the digital asset are as yet unknown/undefined. The BRTF report made a point of noting that the interests of future beneficiaries are often left out of preservation/curation decision-making.

All of the above are roles, and not necessarily distinct entities. So a single person or organization could simultaneously fill multiple roles. Many of the important issues regarding incentives to preserve, allocation of long-term curation responsibilities, etc. hinge on whether various roles are combined within a single organization, or separated across distinct entities. The more that lifecycle roles are dispersed across distinct entities, the more negotiation and consensus must be achieved to reach sustainability goals, and the greater the probability that individual interests will conflict. This leads to an important property of stakeholders that has enormous implications for the prospects of achieving long-term economic sustainability:

  • The distribution of curation roles across the network of stakeholders associated with a curation activity forms a stakeholder ecosystem. The structure of this ecosystem is critical for understanding both the factors encouraging sustainability in a particular digital curation context, as well as the risks that might prevent sustainability from being achieved.  

Take-away points:

  • Not all digital objects are digital assets.
  • Curation is not a one-time expense, but a lifecycle expense.
  • The free-rider problem is a serious obstacle to achieving sustainable curation.
  • The value of digital curation should be measured in terms of the value of curated digital assets .
  • Today’s curation decisions shape tomorrow’s curation choices.
  • The arrangement of curation roles across stakeholders largely determines the ability to act to curate in the public interest.

[I included a bulleted list of “take away points” at the end; it seems that these points should serve as the main connectors between this section and other sections of the model.]

Brian Lavoie

[Update to add links


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