October 7, 2011

Repository Building Diary. Day 1

Filed under: Repositories — Neil Godfrey @ 10:17 am

Let’s say the “day” here represents a stage of maybe a few weeks. The university where I have been asked to take responsibility for the digital collections for both research reporting purposes and showcasing the university’s intellectual output, for the digitization of both rare cultural resources as well as of short term learning materials, along with coordination of research data management generally, has just had some very nice news that gives my job a little extra shine. It has been ranked very respectably within the top 400 universities (top 4% of world universities) in the Times Higher Education Rankings for 2011-12. Not that it really matters that much, of course. I recall once working in a university that one year scored at or near the bottom of a national “recommended universities guide” and we were all soberly informed that the rankings were rubbish and meant absolutely nothing. Two years later I think it was and the same university scored top of the same list. Suddenly we had free champagne and a 15 piece band playing and self-congratulatory speeches all round. 😉

Still, there is an incredible amount of cultural research and history waiting to be digitally preserved here and made open to the world. If we had not scored in the top 400 it would have done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm to showcase a lot of the important research and heritage being produced and stored in Australia’s “top end”.

Someone asked me which of my jobs over the last few years I have liked the best and I had to say that I have loved them all (well, mostly) despite the inevitable difficulties each one brings with it. Each one has its own challenges and that’s good for me. Keeps me learning. Every game is different.

This one has started out well because the Fez-Fedora repository is in very early days of development and the early version of the Greenstone repository for e-learning course materials is no longer worth maintaining, and there is very, very little content currently open-access at all, so we have a chance to start from the ground floor. It is a great opportunity to shape things from early days before systems get too big to manoeuvre easily.

Most university repositories start out their repositories with something easy and that shows quick results while workflows are being fine-tuned, and that something is generally deposits of digitized theses, usually higher degree theses.

But you need a few things up front to be able to do this. You need staff or volunteers to be able to enter or edit the content and records. You need a means of ensuring that the theses are digitized in an appropriate format. You need a repository system that can be easily managed and configured to meet your needs — needs concerning permissions, access, embargo periods, OAI harvesting, etc. And you need to be allowed to enter theses into your repository in the first place!

It’s not much good starting out by entering theses contrary to the written rules, policies and guidelines of the university itself. That’s an invitation to walk into legal disaster. The institutional research and examinations guidelines required that the library negotiate with each student who had authored a higher degree thesis for permission to deposit and make open access their thesis in its repository. This was contrary to my experience in other academic institutions. I have known of cases where students have attempted to have their research theses withheld from public access for up to five years and more but where the (deputy) vice chancellor of research has stepped in and told them a flat No. It is research to which the public has a right to have access. It goes online.

The guidelines we were faced with meant us having to seek permission from every author with a very lengthy and complex form detailing all the rights and wrongs and legalities of what their and our rights would be. And nothing could be deposited until we received a reply from authors going back who knows how many years. It meant we have virtually nix responses and no backlog of theses all about to go online at all.

Of course there are the normal exceptions — third party copyright issues, commercial publication embargoes, cultural and other personal sensitivities, etc — that are good grounds for limiting access to certain theses. That’s not the problem. We ask the authors to assure us that there are no such issues. Those are fair and reasonable reasons to withhold these from open access. We make reasonable efforts to contact authors and other related parties and are always clear that we make theses public in good faith and will remove any if we subsequently learn it should not be online.

Well my first task, one of them, was to go through the appropriate channels to seek changes to the guidelines to the university’s research and examinations practices. I emailed details of all the arguments for the change, and included a file of all the Australian universities that currently have some mandate or practice of virtual routine Open Access deposit of higher degree theses in their institutional repositories — about 80% of them — including a CAIRSS survey result to support the same. And bingo! The library director called me in after meeting the responsible committee and informed me they had all agreed to the change in the guidelines!

It’s nice to start out with a little but very important first step. Now the guidelines are changed we can draft a very brief note for authors and the default will be for us to deposit and make the theses publicly accessible — contingent upon the normal qualifications as mentioned, of course.

Now we can start to build up a huge backlog of theses to be entered so we can then as a next step justify a request for a staff increase to get them in the system! 😉

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