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February 20, 2008

Repositories follow-up - global vs. institutional

There have been a number of responses to my my VALA 2008 keynote on the future of repositories, which Brian Kelly has helpfully summarised to a large extent in a post on his blog.  There are several themes here, which probably need to be separated out for further discussion.  One such is my emphasis on building 'global' (as opposed to 'institutional') repository services.

Before I do that however, I just want to clarify one thing.  Mike Ellis suggests that he is "bemused as to *why* repositories (at all)".  I'll leave others to answer that.  Suffice to say that I was not intending to argue that the management of scholarly stuff (and the workflows around that stuff) is unimportant.  Of course it is.  Just that our emphasis should not be on the particular kinds of systems that we choose to use to undertake that management, but on the bigger objective of open access and how whatever systems we put in place surface content on the Web and support the construction of compelling scholarly social networks.  I am perfectly happy that some people will build systems that they choose to call repositories.  Others will build content management systems.  Still others something else.  The labeling is almost irrelevant (except insofar that it doesn't get in the way of communicating the broader 'open access' message).

OK, back to the issue of global vs. institutional services.  Rachel Heery says:

I don’t really see that there is conflict between encouraging more content going into institutional repositories and ambitions to provide more Web 2.0 type services on top of aggregated IR content. Surely these things go together?

Paul Walk makes a similar point in his blogged response:

The half sentence I don’t quite buy is the “global repository services”. Why can’t we “focus on building and/or using global scholarly social networks” (which I support) based on institutional repository services? We don’t have a problem with institutional web sites do we? Or institutional library OPACs? We have certainly managed to network the latter on a global scale, and built interesting services around this...

Yes, point(s) taken... though I think that the institutional Web site and the OPAC are not primarily 'social networks' (and even if they are, the network they are serving is largely institutionally focussed) so there is a difference.  As I argued in the original blog entry, scholarly social networks are global in nature (or at least extra-institutional).

Of course, the blogosphere is a good example of a global social network being layered on top of a distributed base of content.  On the face of it this seems to argue against my 'global repository' view.  So what is different?  Well, to be honest I'm not sure.  Clearly, the blogosphere is not built out of 'institutional' blog services and my strong suspicion is that if we approached academic blogging in the same way we approach academic repositories we would rapidly kill off its future as a means of scholarly communication :-) .  Long live an open, free market approach to the provision of blogs!  God help us if institutions start trying to lay down the law about when and where its members can blog.  There is a role for institutional blogging services but only as part of a wider landscape of options where individuals can pick and choose a solution that is most appropriate to them.

And that is one of my fundamental points about repositories I guess...  when institutional repositories stop being an option that individuals can choose to make use of and instead become the only option on the table because that is what mandates and policies say must be used, we have a problem.  Instead we need to focus on making scholarly content available on the Web in whatever form makes sense to individual scholars.  My strong suspicion is that if someone came along and built a global research repository, let's call it ResearchShare for the sake of argument (though I'm aware that name is taken), and styled its features after the likes of Slideshare, we would end up with something far more compelling to individual scholars than current institutional offerings.

Note that I'm not being overly dogmatic here.  In my view there are as many routes to open access as there are ways of surfacing content on the Web.  If individual scholars want to do their own thing that's fine by me, provided they do it in a way that ensures their content is at a reasonably persistent URI and is indexed by Google and the like.

This leaves institutions with the problem of picking up the pieces of the multiple ways in which individual scholars choose to surface their scholarly content on the Web.  Well sorry guys... get used to it!

Overall, I don't disagree much with Stu Weibel's take on this.  It's a complex area with lots of competing interests, some rather entrenched.  As Stu notes:

It is still possible that another entirely different model will emerge... more in-the-cloud. A distributed model does seem to complicate curation, (and that institutional reputation thing), but I wouldn't count it out just yet. Still, some institution has to take care of this stuff... responsibility involves the attachement to artifacts, even if they are bitstreams.


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You wrote "Instead we need to focus on making scholarly content available on the Web in whatever form makes sense to individual scholars." I am not sure this is quite enough. My friends in Informatics ask why they should bother putting their papers i a repository when they already have them on their web sites. The difference is permanence. There web site will probably be deleted through institutional policy once they move, retire or die. While in the first and possibly the second case they might put the papers up in a new location, there remains a risk to that content. Most institutional repositories have a commitment to the future much greater than any academics' web pages, and almost certainly greater than any subject repository (witness last year's AHDS debacle).

Why institutional? Why global?

1) We're finding it difficult to deal with the portability problems of many "2.0" apps/sites.

2) When will I be tired of having all my production spread all over the world in zillions of sites?

Why not personal repositories? All in all, people is interested in sharing, but way more in having their own homes in order. And for most people, having to feed several sites is a pain in the ass.

We've got RSS feeds, we've got the idea of the Personal Learning Environment (vs. the traditional VLE or LMS), why think different concerning research? Why not a Personal Research Portal linked and weaved with the rest of portals?

There is an 'instituional' vs 'personal' interest here - which (if you'll excuse the cliche) is a bit of an elephant in the repository.

I'll try to tread carefully and not take sides, but some of these issues come down to questions of who owns the content, and who has an interest in managing it.

It's all very well to say "This leaves institutions with the problem of picking up the pieces of the multiple ways in which individual scholars choose to surface their scholarly content on the Web. Well sorry guys... get used to it!", but why not the opposite view? You could equally say "If you are going to be funded to do research and publish it, you are obliged to deposit in an institutionally approved repository ... get used to it!"

From the institutional perspective, there are economies to make in terms of management and systems, as well as enabling preservation and institutional use of the material.

Personally, I think institutional vs 'network level' is a debate that is only just starting. In contrast to Paul W I do have a problem with 'Institutional OPACs' - of course we need to know what is actually in our library (inventory essentially), but in terms of research I don't buy that the institutional level is the place to start.

I also think that current Government policy has led to a more 'institutional' focus - as this is the level at which competition works - so there is also a question of how much a more 'commercial' approach to Universities affects decisions.

I suppose at the end of the day I'm saying it's not simple - neither the academics nor the institutions work in a vacuum, and the complexity of networks and contacts that hang around academic work mean that we get a rich but often confusing environment. At the sharp end of institutional services, we (I guess I mean 'I') want to provide the best service to the academics whilst providing value for money to the institution - sometimes a difficult thing to get right.

Fascinating as the Web 2.0 angle may be, as far as repositories are concerned it may be time to get back to first principles here. The pass has been sold.

Let's be clear about the objectives here. This is the one I subscribe to:
100% open access.
The strategy is institutionally-mandated repositories. If anyone has a demonstrably better strategy for this objective, then we are open to it, but for now, let's be clear about both.

Others working with repositories may have other objectives. That's fine providing we know what those are, but in this debate I see little evidence of alternative objectives. Andy says: "we need to focus on making scholarly content available on the Web in whatever form makes sense to individual scholars."

Just as for Chris Rusbridge, this for me was where the pass was finally sold, ironically not by the hyperbole and posturing elsewhere. But where is the objective here?

As much of my work is concerned with information dissemination, yes I'm uneasy by the current lack of engagement with repositories by scholars, yes I think we can improve presentation of repositories and provide better support and much better services. But there is a balance of interests and responsibilities, and it's not just about individual researchers.

Instead of OA institutional repositories I see mission creep, of which this debate is a symptom, the result of years of muddle due to the perception that repositories are the wrong approach because they aren't helping us achieve our *personal* objectives as quickly as we would like.

Let's get back to basics with repositories and make sure we are working towards clear and shared objectives.

Steve, firstly let me be absolutely clear... I also want to see 100% open access to research publications (and other scholarly material). The output from publicly funded research should be made available on an open access basis.

On that front, we are completely in agreement... provided we both have a shared understanding about what 'open access' means but for the sake of argument let's go with something like "free and unrestricted online access to digital scholarly material".

As I said in my VALA keynote, it seems to me that OA is now inevitable - the question is 'when' rather than 'if'. My only concern is how best we can bring about the 'when'.

So, we appear to have a shared objective. Our differences lie in how to get there. My concern is that the current strategy of institutionally-mandated repositories is not the most expedient either in terms of rate-of-change of academic practice or in terms of bringing associated benefits of scholarly social networking.

I don't necessarily have a problem with mandates per se... however, as I tried to make clear, I would like to see the focus more firmly on 'surfacing on the Web' rather than 'depositing in a repository', as a more workable and effective approach.

Hi Andy,

Just looking at all those 'recent posts & comments' on the right hand column, it strikes me as strange that the penny wouldn't have dropped by now. I don't know about a "another entirely different model" as one communication model outside your institutional blogging network has been pretty noticeable for about 5 years now. Perhaps now that many of your institutional friends have a blog they might be noticing that they've replaced (or added to) an overflowing inbox with a round robin of blogrolls.

Chris' question, "why global" is pretty easy to answer. Its because we are in a globalizing world, and all communication, scholarly or otherwise, centers around global groups, and their communities of interest.

So when the penny does finally drop (as it appears to be in a few places now) and, in a search for utility, you and your institutionalized mates decide to collaborate, you'll probably find an environment like this is useful. (less the ads)
Chris's DCC forums are one nice start, although largely unused due to academia's habit of flogging one horse at time.

When you do, will you let us know? It might be a little dangerous to leave the design to someone who is paid by an institution but a good spec would be welcome. And a number of domains could really use the help of a good librarian to classify them so they can be found before they're duplicated, or deposited into an institutional web site.

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