Encouraging Open Access

U. of Rochester thinks it has a model that could breathe life into anemic institutional repositories -- a problem that has undermined open-access movement for years.
March 2, 2010

Conversations about open access to journal articles these days tend to revolve around policy, not technology -- whether institutions and funding organizations should mandate that scholars make their research accessible for free, not how they should do it. Open, online repositories for "freed"journal articles have been part of the technological infrastructure at many colleges for years, with nonprofit organizations such as DSpace and Fedora Commons providing open-source platforms to help institutions create their own.

But by the time the University of Rochester made its own open repository in 2005, it was aware of a problem that appeared to be endemic to institutions that already had them: Faculty members were not really publishing much work there.

“In spite of the rapid pace at which organizations are establishing [institutional repositories], the quantity of content deposited into them remains quite modest,” wrote a team of Rochester researchers in a 2005 report studying the phenomenon. “The phrase ‘if you build it they will come’ does not yet apply to IRs,” they added.

“Without content, an IR is just a set of empty shelves,” the report said.

Five years later, the debate about whether scholarly works should be made freely available has grown more heated. But according to Suzanne Bell, a librarian at Rochester, the repositories where those free articles are meant to be kept have not much changed -- and as a result, professors are still unlikely to put their articles there unless their university makes them.

Rochester doesn’t mandate that its faculty make their published work freely available. But it is hoping that a newly redesigned institutional repository, which is based on the findings from that 2005 study, will persuade more of them to do so.

The revamped “IR+” repository, unveiled last week, focuses on giving researchers an online “workspace” within the repository where they can upload and preserve different versions of an article they are working on. Rochester officials believe their faculty will find this appealing because it lets them access the latest versions of their work from anywhere, an aspect that theoretically would make multi-author collaborations easier. In order to make the “work spaces” in the repository more homey, Rochester taps into the Facebook aesthetic by letting professors archive and organize the articles they have published there on personal “researcher pages,” alongside a photograph and other info, through which visitors can browse.

The idea is to make publishing articles to the open repository a natural extension of the composition process, says Mike Bell, the assistant dean for information technology at Rochester’s River Campus libraries. “We’re trying to make putting the piece into the repository a seamless part of the work flow,” says Bell. If faculty members are constantly in contact with the repository throughout the writing and revising phase, Bell says, they are more likely to click “publish” once they’re done than if they had to go through a separate process involving an interface with which they are unfamiliar.

The new features are based on surveys of its own faculty from the 2005 study. The professors had told researchers then that they wanted to be able to work with co-authors easily, keep track of different versions of the same document, and make their work more visible -- all while doing as little extra work as possible.

Rochester did a “soft launch” of the new repository last fall. Last Friday, immediately after the official unveiling, six professors and three graduate students registered almost immediately; a small number, but “huge" relative to how many had registered in the old version over the course of five years, says Suzanne Bell. Most faculty, though, found out about the renovation last Friday along with everyone else, she said.

Maria Bonn, associate university librarian for publishing at the University of Michigan, said that despite the lag time between its 2005 study and last week’s unveiling, Rochester is still ahead of other universities as far as actively trying to entice researchers to engage with its institutional repository. But there is no guarantee that faculty will use the system, she said; only time will tell whether the frills will work.

But if it does, Bonn said, other colleges might adopt the Rochester model -- narrowing the gap between the number of articles that could be openly accessible on repository "shelves," and the number that are.


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