by Burton Callicott (Head of Research and Instruction, College of Charleston Libraries)
and Natasha Simons (Associate Director, Australian Research Data Commons)
When they first arrived on the scene, Institutional Repositories (IRs) were like the new kid in school. They drew a lot of attention and, for a time, even sat with the cool kids at lunch. After a few months however, the novelty wore off and IRs settled into a group of friends more suited to their temperament and status — smart, earnest, and a little awkward. Many library administrators who championed repositories and, in a lot of cases, even reconfigured their org charts to accommodate them, continued to support IRs but stopped paying a lot of attention once the buzz has faded and the teaching faculty failed to embrace the idea, let alone an added step in the publication process. Those library leaders who held out, either for financial reasons or due to inertia, and never bought into a repository platform and the additional positions, would wax smug whenever IRs came up in conversation and state with a suppressed, knowing smile that they never thought they were worth it from the start.
A recent and surprising/not surprising push for open access in general and Open Educational Resources (OERs) in particular coupled with the emergence of Plan S, a global trend towards reproducible research and enabling FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) research data means that IRs have been thrust back into the limelight. In the face of the ominous (and confusing and perhaps elitist) “open access” publication hurricane coming out of science centers in Europe, many of the problems that plagued IRs and conveniently justified their lack of attention — inability to acquire consistent and significant content, competition from discipline-specific repositories, lack of sexy, easy, and aggrandizing services offered by academic social media, etc. — have been minimized by the solutions that they offer to the current open access infused scholarly conversation puzzle. In essence, this is the very staid and drab thing that they have always offered: a space for scholarly contributions that is free and open to anyone with access to the Internet.
Of course the terms “free” and “open” carry a huge amount of weight and controversy in this context. Many of the contributors to this issue grapple with the implications and subtleties of these concepts — it turns out that freedom is not necessarily free when it comes to scholarly publishing. Other authors outline the more specific ways that IRs can smooth out some of the rough spots of Plan S. And, like any good collection of IRticles, we include essays that largely ignore the messy stuff and simply explore the ever expanding possibilities and capabilities of IRs from non traditional research objects (NTROs) to providing entries to the surrounding local community. Even those authors who originally planned to write essays critical of IRs found it very difficult to do so once they got a few paragraphs in. To state the obvious, IRs are not sexy. The name itself is quite fitting. IRs are not perfect. Many of them are clunky (especially compared to slickly produced, commercial social media subterfuges) and, largely because there are so many different platforms and so much variety from institution to institution, they do not offer easy ways to integrate and interoperate (a problem that some may say is essentially solved by Google, but that may require another special issue). However, despite all of that, IRs are undeniably functional and provide an obvious and ready-made duct tape of sorts that can shore up the many gaping holes that come with open access and any grand plans to transform/secretly maintain the scholarly publication industry.
We hope you find the following IR-themed essays thought provoking and enlightening.