From little things, big things grow: a personal reflection on mandatory deposit of research at the University of Canterbury, by Anton Angelo, Repository Manager at the University of Canterbury Library.

Last week I had an email discussion with the developer for our university research information system. My request is to make a file upload field required rather than optional. It, in the scheme of things, is a tiny change — a couple of lines of code in an application that is going to be used by a few hundred people at a medium scale university.

In this case though, the change that this represents is huge. It is the bleeding edge of a change in the way that we understand intellectual property, and realigns the academy with its original intention of being a university.

Canterbury, like well over 200 other universities is adopting an ‘institutional mandate’ for depositing research into its Institutional Repository (IR; see Amanda Curnow’s clear description of what an IR is). We have purposefully kept the word ‘mandate’, as the implication of imposing something on scholars provoked the discussion we wanted — positive engagement with what we were proposing. In reality the policy suggests that, in the absence of a good reason, every time a scholar publishes something it should be made freely available, and we provide a mechanism to do that with our IR. If a scholar wishes to opt out, they should feel free, but we’re curious to know why.

The small technical change we are making is that we’re requiring a copy of a research output submitted for the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) process to be made available and openly accessible for the entire world, by uploading it to our IR. Currently, University of Canterbury scholars can volunteer to upload articles, and about 8% of our research output is put on the web and openly accessible. By making the file upload field required, we hope to see a tenfold increase in deposits.

As usual, there are historical precedents. The library of Alexandria had a mandate to take all the books arriving in the port, copy them, keep the originals, and return the copies. This way — along with an excellent and aggressive collections budget — the biggest library in the world was created.

Reaction to the suggestion of the policy in the community was interesting. The vast majority of faculty research committee meetings and private conversations ended with, “why are we not doing this already?”. It underscored the importance most researchers seem to place on having the widest possible audience for their work. There were exceptions to that, usually based on the culture of a particular academic discipline. For example: high-energy physicists (and others) already use a repository, ArXive. Why should they bother with another one?

I admit that uploading things to the IR is a faff for a lot of reasons. For example, because of the copyright most publishers take when they agree to print an article, scholars have to upload a version that is not the final published one. Academics are not great administrators, and can lose their manuscripts. As well as that it is an extra button to push, a file to hunt down on their hard drive, and then finally, troubling thoughts of “am I allowed to do this?” can overwhelm all but the most robustly legally minded. That last one — what are you allowed to do with your own work? — is a doozy. A scholar in the humanities admitted to me that on being offered the loan of a book his first thought was, “is he allowed to loan me that”? So entrenched are our anxieties on copyright that even the thing that lets libraries exist can be questioned by people who should know much, much better.

I make no apologies for the faff, for it is not faff of our making. We pay researchers to do research, and their research needs to be available for that most old-fashioned of reasons: the common good. You can quantify the good all you like in terms of innovation and product development and state corporate bottom line maximisation, but for me the qualitative argument comes first, and looms largest. It’s the right thing to do. So why is it hard? Wherefore the faff? Traditional academic publishers are on a bit of a losing wicket on this one. Made gigantic on the economic imperatives of globalisation and the efficiencies of the library ‘big deal’, they now have profits they are legally bound to protect for their shareholders. Faff is their stock-in-trade as a way of slowing down the opposition — the IR.

Here are a few ways academic publishers try to slow down deposit into IRs.

  • Most standard publisher-author agreements allow only an obscure version of the work to be added to the IR.
  • They confuse the Open Access (OA) landscape by offering their own version of openly accessible articles, and play divide and conquer with their customers by making the academic pay a charge (often in the thousands of dollars) to publish under an open licence.
    • Additionally, sometimes they offer their own ‘open’ licences, resulting in even greater uncertainty.
  • They employ third parties to scour IRs to find material that could be non-compliant, and send threatening letters. Libraries, being excellent corporate citizens, respond to these by removing material.
  • Knowing that old data is less sexy data, they require embargoes on the release of IR versions of articles, knowing that makes the IRs less useful.
    • As well as this, at least one publisher requires embargoes on IR content only if the institution requires its scholars to submit their research outputs to its IR, an open recognition that IRs threaten publishers’ business model.

It may seem with all those tactics that there is a great conflict going on, but there really isn’t. It is not a war. The arbitrary exclusions and hoops above are the artefacts of a rapidly changing (and potentially failing) business model. New publishers, like PeerJ, Hindawi, and PLoS among many, many others, are simply starting with the assumption that the material will be OA, and they are a low or non-profit business, and can undercut the old guard entirely.

At Canterbury, we have made a tiny technical change. Instead of asking scholars to volunteer their work to be made openly accessible, we ask why they would not. That little thing signals a mighty change for the availability of new knowledge to the world.

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