Sunday, July 24, 2016


The Institutional Repository (IR) is obsolete. Its flawed foundation cannot be repaired. The IR must be phased out and replaced with viable alternatives.

Lack of enthusiasm. The number of IRs has grown because of a few motivated faculty and administrators. After twenty years of promoting IRs, there is no grassroots support. Scholars submit papers to an IR because they have to, not because they want to. Too few IR users become recruiters. There is no network effect.

Local management. At most institutions, the IR is created to support an Open Access (OA) mandate. As part of the necessary approval and consensus-building processes, various administrative and faculty committees impose local rules and exemptions. After launch, the IR is managed by an academic library accountable only to current faculty. Local concerns dominate those of the worldwide community of potential users.

Poor usability. Access-, copy-, reuse, and data-mining rights are overly restrictive or left unstated. Content consists of a mishmash of formats. The resulting federation of IRs is useless for serious research. Even the most basic queries cannot be implemented reliably. National IRs (like PubMed) and disciplinary repositories (like ArXiv) eliminate local idiosyncrasies and are far more useful. IRs were supposed to duplicate their success, while spreading the financial burden and immunizing the system against adverse political decisions. The sacrifice in usability is too high a price to pay.

Low use. Digital information improves with use. Unused, it remains stuck in obsolete formats. After extended non-use, recovering information requires a digital version of archaeology. Every user of a digital archive participates in its crowd-sourced quality control. Every access is an opportunity to discover, report, and repair problems. To succeed at its archival mission, a digital archive must be an essential research tool that all scholars need every day.

High cost. Once upon a time, the IR was a cheap experiment. Today's professionally managed IR costs far too much for its limited functionality.

Fragmented control. Over the course of their careers, most scholars are affiliated with several institutions. It is unreasonable to distribute a scholar's work according to where it was produced. At best, it is inconvenient to maintain multiple accounts. At worst, it creates long-term chaos to comply with different and conflicting policies of institutions with which one is no longer affiliated. In a cloud-computing world, scholars should manage their own personal repositories, and archives should manage the repositories of scholars no longer willing or able.

Social interaction. Research is a social endeavor. [Creating Knowledge] Let us be inspired by the titans of the network effect: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. Encourage scholars to build their personal repository in a social-network context. Disciplinary repositories like ArXiv and SSRN can expand their social-network services. Social networks like, Mendeley, Zotero, and Figshare have the capability to implement and/or expand IR-like services.

Distorted market. Academic libraries are unlikely to spend money on services that compete with IRs. Ventures that bypass libraries must offer their services for free. In desperation, some have pursued (and dropped) controversial alternative methods of monetizing their services. [Scholars Criticize Proposal to Charge Authors for Recommendations]

Many academics are suspicious of any commercial interests in scholarly communication. Blaming publishers for the scholarly-journal crisis, they conveniently forget their own contribution to the dysfunction. Willing academics, with enthusiastic help from publishers, launch ever more journals.[Hitler, Mother Teresa, and Coke] They also pressure libraries to site license "their" journals, giving publishers a strong negotiation position. Without library-paid site licenses, academics would have flocked to alternative publishing models, and publishers would have embraced alternative subscription plans like an iTunes for scholarly papers. [Where the Puck won't be] [What if Libraries were the Problem?] Universities and/or governments must change how they fund scholarly communication to eliminate the marketplace distortions that preserve the status quo, protect publishers, and stifle innovation. In a truly open market of individual subscriptions, start-up ventures would thrive.

I believed in IRs. I advocated for IRs. After participating in the First Meeting of the Open Archives Initiative (1999, Santa Fe, New Mexico), I started a project that would evolve into Caltech CODA. [The Birth of the Open Access Movement] We encouraged, then required, electronic theses. We captured preprints and historical documents. [E-Journals: Do-It-Yourself Publishing]

I was convinced IRs would disrupt scholarly communication. I was wrong. All High Energy Physics (HEP) papers are available in ArXiv. Being a disciplinary repository, ArXiv functions like an idealized version of a federation of IRs. It changed scholarly communication for the better by speeding up dissemination and improving social interaction, but it did not disrupt. On the contrary, HEP scholars organized what amounted to an an authoritarian take-over of the HEP scholarly-journal marketplace. While ensuring open access of all HEP research, this take-over also cemented the status quo for the foreseeable future. [A Physics Experiment] 

The IR is not equivalent with Green Open Access. The IR is only one possible implementation of Green OA. With the IR at a dead end, Green OA must pivot towards alternatives that have viable paths forward: personal repositories, disciplinary repositories, social networks, and innovative combinations of all three.

*Edited 7/26/2016 to correct formatting errors.

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