IR You Open? How Institutional Repositories and Open Access Publishing Benefit Universities

by Shannon Lucky
Library Systems & Information Technology, University of Saskatchewan

As we begin planning for Open Access Week (Oct 20 – 26, 2014) at the USask University Library, I have been thinking about institutional repositories (IRs) and the role they play in open access culture at universities. A well-managed, user friendly IR can be a great publicity piece for an academic institution, but not all post-secondary institutions have IRs and those that do don’t always require their faculty to contribute to them. Universities’ interest in IRs is growing, especially now that some major granting agencies require scholarly output be made available through these kind of services, and it is very often academic libraries that take the lead on developing and supporting these projects. CARL is active in promoting IRs in Canada and maintains a list of current universities that have IRs. There are even university IRs that any academic can contribute to if your institution does not have one. Libraries and IRs seem like a natural fit, libraries are the information and research specialists on any university campus, but it takes a larger institutional commitment to make these projects successful.

IRs are services provided by a university to its members to support the management and dissemination of intellectual output in a digital format. This can include digital documents and/or metadata for journal articles (preprints and postprints), monographs, theses and dissertations, instructional materials, admin documents, or other digital assets. The goal is to bring together all of the relevant intellectual output of an institution in one place and make it accessible based on the ideal of digital interoperability and open access. In a digital publishing environment where it has become increasingly easy to search and share articles, researchers are still often stymied by publisher paywalls and copyright issues. There has been no shortage of criticism about the current state of academic publishing relating to cost, bundling of journal subscriptions, library e-book lending, and using publication metrics to gauge faculty performance. While not a silver bullet, IRs are a useful way to make research more easily accessible while still working within recognized publication authority structures.

Alma Swan published a briefing paper in Open Scholarship (2013) that listed the ways universities benefit from developing IRs.

  • Opening up outputs of the institution to a worldwide audience;
  • Maximizing the visibility and impact of these outputs as a result;
  • Showcasing the institution to interested constituencies – prospective staff, prospective students and other stakeholders;
  • Collecting and curating digital output;
  • Managing and measuring research and teaching activities;
  • Providing a workspace for work-in-progress, and for collaborative or large-scale projects;
  • Enabling and encouraging interdisciplinary approaches to research;
  • Facilitating the development and sharing of digital teaching materials and aids, and
  • Supporting student endeavours, providing access to theses and dissertations and a location for the development of e-portfolios.

It is a persuasive argument, but large scale uptake in IR use is still a work in progress.

An IR that is actively embraced by the members of an institution and used to its full capacity is an incomparable advertisement for the quality and diversity of the research being done there. This is often a major selling point for institutions who choose to implement these large scale projects. It makes the institution look good and it raises the profile of all of their members who contribute to it. While this is often reason enough for a university to implement an IR project, the most powerful function of IRs is the interoperability protocols that will aid discovery and visibility. IRs are great ambassadors for institutions to show off all of the fantastic work their members do, but individual IRs are not meant to be siloed digital storage. The Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR) aims to connect institutional repositories together, using shared protocols, to create a seamless layer of content across Canada and around the world. This would mean the ability to search a network of international IRs providing open access to the combined published intellectual output of all participating institutions. Imagine what a fully developed system like this could do to support cross-institutional collaborative research, rapid dissemination of findings, and discovery of useful sources (not to mention increasing the discoverability – and citation numbers – for shared publications).

While I find all of this potential for sharing information thrilling, there are very real issues institutions need to confront. The process of setting up an IR framework is not difficult (there are a number of open source and proprietary software packages available) but working with institutional culture can be challenging. Encouraging buy-in and participation of researchers is critical to the success of an IR, without a critical mass of content an IR may as well be simple cloud storage. I have heard concerns that making work open access, particularly preprint articles or research data and findings that have not yet been published in a peer reviewed journal, could open academics up to being scooped on their research. There is also the concern that IRs might break copyright agreements with publishers. On top of these legal and intellectual challenges, academics are busy people and asking them to jump through one more hoop to enter their work in an IR once it has been published may not endear IR proponents to their colleagues.

To deposit or not to deposit, that is the question.

By Roche DG, Lanfear R, Binning SA, Haff TM, Schwanz LE, et al. (2014) [CC-BY-4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I believe that these concerns can be resolved, but it will mean improving the design, workflow, and understanding of the benefits of IRs within the university community. Following copyright agreements and protecting unpublished research is already accommodated in many IRs by embargoing publications and using integrated tools to track copyright permissions. Self-archiving can be an empowering and extremely beneficial practice, but it is much easier when you have the best tools to do it. A lack of interest and participation can cripple an otherwise well planned IR project, which may be one of the reasons some institutions make submitting work to their IR compulsory. Many universities now require graduate students to submit their theses and dissertations to an IR, for example. Requiring researchers to deposit their publications in an IR can get them more actively engaged in the copyright agreements they sign with publishers. While making IR contributions compulsory can work, it would be so much better if we didn’t have to strong-arm people into participating.

I propose a less stick, more carrot approach that would make keeping your IR profile up to date appealing by having additional tools that can export formatted publication information directly into institutional CV  templates or automatically update departmental or personal webpages with your most recent academic output. If an IR is designed with the needs of both searchers and contributors in mind it can become an invaluable resource for multiple aspects of disseminating your academic work, not just another tedious institutional task.



Swan, Alma. “Open Access institutional repositories: A Briefing Paper”Open Scholarship. Retrieved 05 September 2014.


This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.


2 thoughts on “IR You Open? How Institutional Repositories and Open Access Publishing Benefit Universities

  1. Well done, Shannon. This is a nice summary of the benefits of an IR. A couple of your statements resonated with me. Yes, IRs are not a “silver bullet”, but they can be a useful way to increase the visibility and discoverability of a university’s research. I’m sure we have all retrieved something from an IR as the result of a Google search that we wouldn’t have found otherwise.

    The second point is that the key to success is institutional commitment. It is disappointing to me that you are having to make the same case for an IR that I did 5 years ago, and that the UofS seems to be no closer to having a fully functional campus-wide IR service than it was when I retired in 2011. The UofS may be the only CARL institution without a campus-wide IR due to the absence of the institutional will to create one. I hope that you and your colleagues will be able to make some progress on changing attitudes during OA Week.

    I agree with you that self-archiving would be ideal, and having tools to facilitate importing and exporting files and metadata will help, but the libraries that have been the most successful at populating their IRs have appointed an IR Coordinator and are providing services for profs who need help with archiving.

    Good Luck!

    David Fox, Librarian Emeritus
    (and a former head of the Library IT Dept)

  2. Thanks so much for your comments David, I couldn’t agree more about the value of having an IR coordinator position. It may seem like a lot to ask when university libraries already have so much expertise in the general area of records and information management, but this kind of large scale project really needs a persuasive, motivated, and empowered champion that is fully backed by university leadership.
    It’s a huge undertaking to build the social capital and buy-in at all levels (university leadership to early career researchers & graduate students) but I am optimistic this is the way universities will have to go (sooner or later) now that the Tri-Council Agencies have made making funded research available via IRs part of their agreements.

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