Discussion about open access often focuses exclusively on open access journals, and often on the extreme ends of the quality spectrum: the really excellent journals and the really awful ones. There’s a lot of fascinating and nuanced and ever-evolving stuff to say about open access journals, but there’s a whole lot more to open access. And today I’m going to talk about open access repositories, freely accessible online databases of articles and other works.
What Are Open Access Repositories?
Thanks to Google (and the irrepressible urge to research health symptoms), you’ve almost certainly found and read materials in open access repositories, but you might not have realized that there was anything special about the sites hosting those document.
One reason open access repositories are special is that they’re created and maintained with long-term preservation in mind. They will persist, and offer persistent URLs to documents, much longer than most other sites. In particular, they will outlast authors’ personal web pages, which often disappear shortly after retirement, resignation, death, or failure to pay for domain name renewal. So, unlike most free web content, works in open access repositories aren’t just open access now and a year from now; they’re open access for a very long time to come — ideally, forever.
Types of Repositories
There is no single, universal open access repository, but that’s okay because Google and other tools search across many repositories and generally do a good job of finding what you’re looking for, wherever it may reside. Here are some of the different flavors of open access repositories:
- Disciplinary repositories are repositories that welcome submissions in a certain field, regardless of the institutional home of the author(s). Some of the biggest and best-known disciplinary repositories are arXiv.org (for physics, math, computer science, and several other sciences), PubMed Central (for the biomedical sciences), and the Social Science Research Network, or SSRN (for the social sciences). One big benefit of disciplinary repositories is that they collect a large amount of related research in one place, so it’s often well worth a researcher’s time to go directly to the appropriate repository and browse or search for papers of interest. Of course, some disciplinary repositories are more robust than others, and, while there are many, there is not a repository for every field.
- Institutional repositories are repositories hosted by an institution (usually a college or university) to make available the works of its researchers. Successful examples include the repositories at MIT and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. One big benefit of institutional repositories is that they accept all kinds of documents — slideshows, posters, speaker’s notes, images, etc. — whereas many disciplinary repositories limit themselves to articles/papers.
- Commercial networking/profile sites, such as Academia.edu, ResearchGate, and Mendeley, allow researchers to create profile pages and upload their works. These sites have helped many researchers (including those who don’t have an appropriate disciplinary repository or an institutional repository at their disposal) make their works open access, and have connected many others with those works. But the commercial nature of these sites make some worry about what’s being done with data about users and contributions, as well as about the longevity of the sites and the fate of the documents if the sites shut.
And here’s some really big news: The CUNY Graduate Center is on the verge of rolling out its own repository — there’s almost nothing there yet, but soon it’ll have lots of papers, dissertations, master’s theses, and other works. And here’s even bigger news: CUNY will soon be following suit with a university-wide repository!
Is All This Allowed? Isn’t It Pirating?
Sure, researchers can put all sorts of research output online. But what about their journal articles — aren’t a lot of journals commercial, and don’t journals require authors to transfer their copyright to the journal?
Yes, a lot of journals are for-profit enterprises, and yes, those journals almost always require authors to sign over their copyright. Nevertheless, a majority of journals allow authors to self-archive their articles (usually not the final PDF, but some version) in open access repositories. (Find out which journals allow what at SHERPA/RoMEO.)
So, yep, all this is allowed, and, nope, using repositories is not pirating!