The E-Print Deposit Conundrum

How can scholars be motivated to deposit e-prints in disciplinary archives, institutional repositories, and other digital archives?

In "A Key-Stroke Koan for Our Open-Access Times," Stevan Harnad says:

Researchers themselves have hinted at the resolution to this koan: Yes, they need and want OA. But there are many other demands on their time too, and they will only perform the requisite keystrokes if their employers and/or funders require them to do it, just as it is already their employers and funders who require them to do the keystrokes to publish (or perish) in the first place. It is employers and funders who set researchers’ priorities, because it is employers and funders who reward researchers’ performance. Today, about 15% of research is self-archived spontaneously but 95% of researchers sampled report that they would self-archive if required to do so by their employers and/or funders: 81% of them willingly, 14% reluctantly; only 5% would not comply with the requirement. And in the two objective tests to date of this self-reported prediction, both have fully confirmed it, with over 90% self-archiving in the two cases where it was made a requirement (Southampton-ECS and CERN).

This is a very cogent point, but, if the solution to the problem is to have scholars’ employers compel them to deposit e-prints, the next logical question is: how can university administrators and other key decision makers be convinced to mandate this activity?

In the UK, a debate is raging between OA advocates and publishers about the UK Research Funding Councils’ (RCUK) self-archiving proposal, which would "mandate the web self-archiving of authors’ final drafts of all journal articles resulting from RCUK-funded research." The fact that this national policy debate is occuring at all is an enormous advance for open access. If RCUK mandates e-print deposit, UK university administrators will need no convincing.

In the US, we are a long way from reaching that point, although the NIH’s voluntary e-print deposit policy provides some faint glimmer of hope that key government agencies can be moved to take some kind of action. However, the US does not have an equivalent to RUCK that can make dramatic e-print policy changes that affect research universities in one fell swoop. It does have government agencies, such as NSF, that control federal grant funds, private foundations that control their own grant funds, and thousands of universities and colleges that, in theory, could establish policies. This is a diffuse and varied audience for the OA message to reach and convince, and the message will need to be tailored to the audience to be effective.

While that plays out, we should not forget scholars themselves, however dimly we view the prospects of changing their behavior to be. University librarians and IT staff know their institutions’ scholars and can work with them one-one-one or in groups to gradually influence change. True, it’s "a journey of a thousand miles" approach, but, the number of librarians and IT staff that will be effective on a national stage is small, while the number of them that may be incrementally effective on the local level is large. The efforts are complementary, not mutually exclusive.

I would urge you to read Nancy Fried Foster and Susan Gibbons’ excellent article "Understanding Faculty to Improve Content Recruitment for Institutional Repositories" for a good example of how an IR can be personalized so that faculty have a greater sense of connection to it and how IR staff can change the way they talk about the IR to better match scholars’ world view.

Here are a few brief final thoughts.

First, as is often said, scholars care about the impact of their work, and it is likely that, if scholars could easily see detailed use statistics for their works (e.g., number of requests and domain breakdowns), they might be more inclined to deposit items if those statistics exceed their expectations. So, the challenge here is to incorporate this capability into commonly used archiving software programs if it is absent.

Second, scholars are unlikely to stumble when entering bibliographic data about their works (although it might not be quite as fully descriptive as purists might like), but entering subject keywords is another matter. Sure they know what the work is about, but are they using terms that others would use and that group their work with similar works in retrieval results? Yes, a controlled vocabulary would help, although such vocabularies have their own challenges. But, I wonder if user-generated "tags," such as those used in Technorati, might be another approach. The trick here is to make the tags and the frequency of their use visible to both authors and searchers. For authors, this helps them put their works where they will be found. For searchers, it helps them find the works.

Third, it might be helpful if an author could fill out a bibliographic template for a work once and, with a single keystroke, submit it to multiple designated digital archives and repositories. So, for example, a library author might choose to submit a work to his or her institutional repository, DLIST, and E-LIS all at once. Of course, this would require a minimal level of standardization of template information between systems and the development of appropriate import capabilities. Some will say: "why bother?" True, OAI-PMH harvesting should, in theory, make duplicate deposit unnecessary given OAIster-like systems. But "lots of copies keep stuff safe," and users still take a single-archive searching approach in spite of OAI-PMH systems.

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