Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Digital repositories – reaching the parts other websites cannot reach

By James Georgalakis

If you write a blog about what’s trending on Twitter or the latest website design fad you normally get some good engagement. If you write about Open Access to research you can normally get a debate going.

But when you start writing, or talking for that matter, about institutional repositories people’s eyes tend to glaze over. This is unfortunate because a key, perhaps essential, element of an innovative digital communications strategy that promotes Open Access to research is the use of a repository. Perhaps it is the name that puts people off or they simply assume this is the sole preserve of librarians.

Whatever the blockage is we need to get over it and fast.

Many research funders have long expected to see repositories host outputs they have funded. Universities have long been fully equipped in this area but many members of the development research community from think tanks to NGOs are simply publishing their outputs onto a traditional website.

This week, which is also Open Access Week 2013, IDS announced that it is in the process of digitising and publishing onto OpenDocs, its open access repository, its entire back catalogue of almost 2,000 research reports, working papers, practice papers, and other IDS Series Titles.

I will attempt to explain why I believe digital repositories are essential if you are serious about open access publishing and research uptake.

What is a digital repository, anyway?

Repositories are built on software that is international and interoperable, facilitating data exchange and re-use. In other words, they are highly compatible with other systems! The full text of each archived document is rapidly indexed by search engines and securely stored for the long term. In this way a repository like OpenDocs hugely increases the discoverability of IDS and our partners’ research through search engines such as Google scholar. This means more citations and hopefully more uptake and influence.

At IDS we have a good publications search area on our website which is one of our most popular pages. What you may not notice is that most of the documents you download are actually hosted on our repository. This is because OpenDocs adds value, securing additional hits from searches made from outside the IDS site as well as those done within the site. We also provide the links to all our partners’ and projects’ websites so that the research outputs they appear host all get downloaded directly from OpenDocs, which is crucial for our monitoring systems.

Many institutions use repositories to profile special collections or archives. This can result in large numbers of downloads where there are topical themes or big name academics involved. Perhaps not surprisingly, the very early days of IDS’ repository were marked with the launch of a Robert Chambers archive. Many repositories have built in analytics so that you can view downloads of specific publications or whole collections. Again, due to the wider reach of repositories, this gives you a far fuller picture of usage than the google analytics reports you may have been producing on your own website’s page views and downloads.

Of course repositories vary hugely and some can do quite different things to others. IDS uses a software package called DSpace which represents a different approach to digital collections management compared with other popular systems like Fedora.

IDS’ repository actually hosts two completely distinct collections:
  1. One is rather obviously the IDS Research Community  collection
  2. the other is the BLDS Digital Library of over 2,000 full-text publications from research organisations in Africa and Asia. 
Presently OpenDocs is mainly populated with text-only material but over time it may include datasets and multimedia content as well.

Warning: Digital repositories do not automatically meet all open access mandates

Open Access literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. Clearly repositories, with their ability to make research more widely available should form a crucial part of any open access strategy.

However, just because publications and other outputs are freely downloadable from repositories it does not mean they are free of all licensing restrictions. This means they may not meet the open access requirements of some funders. Every effort is now being made at IDS to ensure material in OpenDocs has a Creative Commons Attribution license.

So, if you are amongst those whose research and knowledge is not supported with a digital repository, you need to ask some hard questions. Does your institutional website offer the same benefits and if not what are you going to do about it? Failure to invest in this technology and promote its use across your networks may be undermining your potential reach.
Find out more about IDS' approach to open access publishing.
James Georgalakis is Head of Communications at the Institute of Development Studies. Follow James on Twitter

Previous blogs by James on Impact and Learning: