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Running Effective Institutional Repositories: A Look at Best Practices

From Sarah Tanksalvala, Thomson Reuters  Institutional repositories are an increasingly common feature of universities, creating a database of scholarly and educational work produced by a university’s faculty and students. Done right, they can create a showcase for researchers and students hoping to demonstrate their scholarship, at the same time showcasing the university’s achievements as a whole.

“It’s a way of making the stuff that’s done here, which is often funded with public money, especially at a public university like ours, more readily available to the folks who either explicitly or implicitly have said ‘This is a priority. We want to know more about this,’” says Jim Ottaviani, the librarian who manages the University of Michigan’s repository, Deep Blue.

Bronwen Sprout, head of digital programs and services at the University of British Columbia, adds that one key benefit of institutional repositories is that they’re permanent.

Institutional Repository Goals

Ottaviani says that Deep Blue has three main goals. The first is preserving scholarly and creative work done by researchers, faculty and students. The second is to make that work more accessible to the campus and academic communities. And, thirdly, they want to make this work available to ordinary people who may never have a chance to visit the university.

While it’s difficult to measure impact using statistics like downloads and social media shares, institutional repositories can give interesting data about the accessibility of – and possibly interest in – research.

“Every time I happen to be looking through Deep Blue for something else, it seems I’m running into a paper or other item that was deposited there, and I see that it’s got one of those altmetric doughnuts appearing because it’s been tweeted seven times,” says Ottaviani. “You don’t know what kind of impact research has until it’s available to somebody who you never would have guessed would use this.”

The University of British Columbia’s CIRCLE repository is run with similar goals, and Sprout adds that institutional repositories can help fulfill the Open Access requirements attached to some forms of public funding.

Achieving these Goals

Universities can do a number of things to increase the effectiveness of their repositories.

The first is to pre-populate the repository with prior research. For any university just starting a repository, adding previous research before asking faculty to contribute their new research can help them understand what the repository is, what it’s for and what kinds of research should be posted there.

Perhaps most important, though, is to make it easy to post to the repository. The University of Michigan does this by removing all barriers to publication. There are no requirements, no mediation, no required metadata. It’s purely democratic and doesn’t lower the quality of the repository.

“The ‘currency’ of academia, if you’ll accept that metaphor, is not actually money, but reputation,” says Ottaviani. “So you’re a step ahead in terms of letting it be democratic, because people understand very quickly and very easily that it’ll be attached to them.”

Sprout agrees that there needs to be a low barrier to entry, though at the University of British Columbia they achieve that by having librarians ask faculty to give them their research, and they’ll upload it and add the metadata. This fosters close relationships between subject librarians and researchers.

“We try to make that as easy as we can by providing lots of support, basically, ‘give us your stuff and we can take care of the metadata and help with permission seeking,’” she says.

She adds that paying attention to search-engine requirements is an important way to ensure that content is indexed properly and shows up in search results. Digital Object Identifiers, or DOIs, permanently identify items.

“We want to make the material really visible, and we want to keep it permanently,” Sprout says. “So we’ve got a digital preservation system integrated with our repository.”

Regardless of how they’re implemented, the keys to running an effective institutional repository are the same. For faculty and students, the process of uploading their work must be easy, and they need to understand the benefits of archiving their research output. Librarians, meanwhile, need to work to promote search visibility. And the repository's usage and impact need to be measured. Implement a Research Framework to set best practices for your institutional repository.

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