More on the future of repositories – response to Richard Poynder

“The reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated” (to paraphrase Mark Twain)

Although I agree with some of what Richard Poynder writes in the introduction to his recent interview with Cliff Lynch published on September 22, 2016, I do take exception to a number of the assertions he makes about the current state of IRs, especially his comments that green OA has failed (although this is clearly what the publishers would have us believe).

It is true that repositories have not yet completely fulfilled their potential, and there are efforts to shift the transition to open access through APC-based gold OA. However, this is a critical time for IRs. The global network is now at a point where we have an international mechanism to communicate with each other (COAR) and we are consolidating around a common vision and strategy for repositories.

In the last 3 months I have been traveling extensively in Europe, Latin America and China. All of these regions are investing in repository infrastructure to support open access, are working actively to improve interoperability across regions, and are establishing regional and/or national networks for repositories. In this respect, the United States is an outlier, since it has yet to leverage the strategic value of its institutional repositories through developing a national network. I hope this will change in the near future.

As Poynder alludes to in his introduction, highly centralized systems are far easier to launch, nurture and promote, however, there are significant benefits to a distributed system. It is much less vulnerable to buy-out, manipulation, or failure. Furthermore, a global network, managed collectively by the university and research community around the world, can be more attuned to local values, regional issues and a variety of perspectives. Repositories do have the potential to change scholarly communication, but there is some urgency that we start to build greater momentum now.

Recognizing the current challenges and opportunities for repositories, COAR launched a working group in April 2016 to identify priority functionalities for the next generation of repositories. In this activity, our vision is clearly articulated,

“To position distributed repositories as the foundation of a globally networked infrastructure for scholarly communication that is collectively managed by the scholarly community. The resulting global repository network should have the potential to help transform the scholarly communication system by emphasizing the benefits of collective, open and distributed management, open content, uniform behaviors, real-time dissemination, and collective innovation.”

Ultimately, what we are promoting is a conceptual model, not a technology. Technologies will and must change over time, including repository technologies. We are calling for the scholarly community to take back control of the knowledge production process via a distributed network based at scholarly institutions around the world.

The aim of our next generation repositories working group is to better integrate repositories into the research process and make repositories truly ‘of the web, not just on the web’. Once we do that, we can support the creation of better, more sophisticated value added services.

In his comments, Poynder also talks about the lack of full text content in repositories and cites one example, the University of Florida, which is working with Elsevier to add metadata records. However, one repository does not make a trend and COAR does not support this type of model. The vast majority of repositories focus on collecting full text content and the primary raison d’etre of repositories has always been and remains to provide access to full text articles, and other valuable research outputs, so they can be re-used and maximize the value and impact of research.

Poynder also mis-characterizes many of the centralized services aggregating repository content saying they “appear (like SSRN) to be operated by for-profit concerns”. On the contrary, there are numerous examples of not-for-profit aggregators including BASE, CORE, SemanticScholar, CiteSeerX, OpenAIRE, LA Referencia and SHARE (I could go on). These services index and provide access to a large set of articles, while also, in some cases, keeping a copy of the content.

And finally, Poynder’s comments about the current protocol used for interoperability, OAI-PMH, are somewhat misleading. OAI-PMH was a child of its time (1999) and was pretty good at what it was supposed to do at the time. However, it is out of date and we need a new approach; the OAI has proposed ResourceSync, based on Sitemaps, for discovery and synchronization of repository resources. A major outcome for the COAR Next Generation Repositories Working Group will be recommendations about new standards for repository interoperability.

And so, there is an African proverb that I often quote in my presentations about the future of repositories, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’. Indeed, it has taken longer than we had anticipated to coalesce around a common vision in a distributed, global environment, but we are now well positioned to offer a viable alternative for an open and community led scholarly communication system.

Kathleen Shearer, Executive Director, COAR

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