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June 15, 2007

Repository Plan B?

"The most successful people are those who are good at Plan B."
-- James Yorke, mathematician

My post yesterday about real vs. fake sharing in the context of services like Facebook, coupled with my ongoing thinking about what is or isn't happening in the repositories space has made me begin to wonder.

Pete said to me yesterday while we were discussing my Facebook post that he feels very reluctant these days to put content into any service that doesn't spit it back out at you as an RSS or Atom feed.

I completely concur.  It is HTTP, the 'http' URI and the RSS feed (and more latterly the use of Atom) that are the really successful interoperability glue of the Internet. This is brought home most clearly in our daily use of services like Bloglines, Technorati, Facebook and the rest, in the ease with which one can aggregate stuff using the Blastfeeds and Yahoo Pipes of this world, in the way in which one can build whole Web sites simply by pulling together externally held content via their feeds.

But what does this mean for repositories?

Imagine a world in which we talked about 'research blogs' or 'research feeds' rather than 'repositories', in which the 'open access' policy rhetoric used phrases like 'research outputs should be made freely available on the Web' rather than 'research outputs should be deposited into institutional or other repositories', and in which accepted 'good practice' for researchers was simply to make research output freely available on the Web with an associated RSS or Atom feed.

Wouldn't that be a more intuitive and productive scholarly communication environment than what we have currently?

I completely accept the argument put forward by others (e.g. see Rachel's comments on my previous post or Jim Downing's recent blog entry) that a repository is about more than just discovery, sharing and access - its about management (content management? :-) ), curation, preservation, whatever, ...  But until we foster, support and build on the social networking aspects of our learning and research communities properly, we simply will not have enough content in repositories to bother worrying about anything else.

This is not simply about saying we should give more prominence in our repository activities to supporting RSS than we do to supporting the OAI-PMH (though I happen to think that we should - for the purely pragmatic reason that it is more widely adopted) - it's about our whole attitude and approach to 'repositories' (if that is what we insist on calling them) as social tools.

In my JISC talk I positioned ArXiv as one of the first Web 2.0 services (somewhat tenuous I know, since it predates the Web).  Like almost all successful Web 2.0 services, ArXiv is global in nature - it positions and engages its users directly within a global context that means something to them as researchers.  Since then, we have largely attempted to position repositories as institutional services, for institutional reasons, in the belief that metadata harvesting will allow us to aggregate stuff back together in meaningful ways.

Is it working?  I'm not convinced.  Yes, we can acknowledge our failure to put services in place that people find intuitively compelling to use by trying to force their use thru institutional or national mandates?  But wouldn't it be nicer to build services that people actually came to willingly?

In short, do we need a repositories plan B?


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Speaking from the "other side", I think you (librarians, repository managers -- info professionals) are going to need mandates because we (researchers) are lazy and self-centered. A few "scientific generations" after mandates get close to 100% coverage, the research community will probably treat OA as though it was our idea all along, but until then -- we'll need to be pushed.

That said, I cannot fathom why it never occurred to me that repositories should have RSS feeds. What a great idea! I have a couple of saved searches at Entrez/PubMed, and even though they are email updates I use Bloglines to "convert" them to RSS. It would be marvelous if a saved search of interoperable repositories were available by RSS -- and that's just the first application that occurs to me.

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