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July 10, 2008

Open Access: Online archives

Open access publishing has been in the limelight as recent developments have encouraged more free publication of scholarly literature.

This is the third in an occasional series on the impact of the digital age on academic publishing.

The word archive may conjure up a mental image of a musty collection of books and papers accessible only to a few researchers who make the trek to the stacks of some remote library. In the digital age, however, an electronic archive can offer all the information — without the dust or travel — to any researcher with Internet access.

Online archives can serve a multitude of purposes. Some store the scholarly work of an institution’s faculty, such as the repository to be launched at Pitt this fall. Others preserve information based on a specific discipline. Some limit themselves to work that’s already been published, such as back issues of journals; others serve to disseminate new scholarly work quickly, without the often-lengthy publication process. Some archives are designed to be expandable; others represent intact collections. The University Library System’s growing list of digital collections (indexed at run the gamut from collections of old photos of Pittsburgh and historic University documents mainly of local interest to discipline-based archives that are tapped by scholars worldwide.

Pitt’s well established place as a host among academic institutions to such scholarly archives yields rewards in the form of more widespread dissemination of the University community’s academic work.

Graduate dissertations, for example, are archived online, and have been accessed more than a half-million times, Provost James V. Maher noted in a presentation on scholarly publishing to Faculty Assembly in April.

Maher said, “We do think the dissertations from Pitt are having an impact on the scholarly world,” adding that much of the viewing is coming from outside the United States. Before Pitt dissertations went all digital in 2004, access to them in other parts of the world had been minimal, Maher said.

Metadata (information about each item in the repository) is designed to turn up in searches using products such as Google or Yahoo. There’s no need for people to know that Pitt has a repository, noted University Library System director Rush Miller, because “It’s indexed where people look.” Anyone searching on a particular topic will see the Pitt results pop up in the search.

In addition to posting dissertations online, the University hosts author self-archiving academic sites (with content contributed by the authors rather than selected by librarians) for the philosophy of science, minority health, aphasiology and European integration. Miller noted that the library’s infrastructure and technical support make it possible for various disciplines to launch and maintain such open-access repositories. “Ours are done in partnership with academic units on campus where we have strengths,” Miller said.

One such example is the Minority Health Archive, which Tim Deliyannides, head of the ULS Department of Information Systems, said is the first e-archive in its field. Having well-respected Pitt editors such as Stephen Thomas, who heads Pitt’s Center for Minority Health, “lends a lot of clout and credibility to the archive” and encourages contributions, Deliyannides said. The site, which aims to be the leading repository for health-related information on minority racial and ethnic groups in the United States, currently houses 779 documents.

The Aphasiology Archive mainly houses clinical aphasiology conference proceedings, dating back to 1974. Currently home to 1,109 documents, the site aims to be a central repository for the field of aphasiology, which deals with the study and management of neurologic language disorders.

The Archive of European Integration, Deliyannides said, is devoted to the collection of “gray literature” on the study of the European Union, including working papers, government reports and other documents not published through conventional channels.

“We’re collecting it in a subject-specific archive so it becomes more discoverable and searchable,” he said. Deliyannides said the archive contains some documents from the first discussions of a European Union dating back to the 1950s, including some documents that even the EU hasn’t digitized. “It’s a very important site worldwide in that field,” Deliyannides said.

Pitt’s first author self-archiving repository, the PhilSci Archive, houses conference proceedings and author-submitted preprints of scholarly articles in the field of philosophy of science.

Conceived in 2000, the archive — known informally in the field simply as the Pittsburgh archive — has secured its place as the worldwide clearinghouse for preprints in the discipline. The archive also is used for circulating papers in advance of conferences. Papers accepted for the Philosophy of Science Association’s conferences are posted so they can be read ahead of time — replacing a bound volume.

The archive is increasing in usage, adding 200-250 new submissions a year and logging hundreds of thousands of visits. In 2006, for instance, the site was accessed by registered users from 65 countries totaling 320,000 site visits and more than 1.2 million page views.

Pitt professor John D. Norton, director of the Center for Philosophy of Science, was among the founders of the archive. “It’s a natural thing to have it here,” Norton said, pointing to the Pitt department’s reputation as the leading department in the field of philosophy of science.

In the old days, Norton explained, authors would seek feedback on their manuscripts by running off a dozen or so copies, mailing them to experts in the field and waiting for their comments. “A preprint server replaces that mechanism,” he said. “It’s a new way of disseminating information.”

Norton noted that the old system provided for distribution and validation of a paper at the same time. “Preprint separates dissemination and validation,” he said.

Submissions to the archive are reviewed to ensure they meet minimal professional standards (if everything were allowed in, the archive would cease to be useful, Norton noted), but validation is done separately. The result: faster distribution to a wider audience. Readers can go to the PhilSci archive and browse, or can subscribe to portions related to their interests. They also can write replies and make comments on the posted items.

Because the archive serves to allow for early circulation of drafts, Norton cautioned that a document on the preprint server “is not the authoritative document” for a paper that later appears in a journal. “That needs to be recognized to ensure accurate quoting from an article,” he said.

ULS encourages proposals for digital publishing projects. One such archive that got its start at Pitt is the Cleft Palate Journal Archive, which contains digital versions of the Cleft Palate Journal from 1964 to 1989. (More recent issues are archived by the journal publisher.) Launched in December 2006 after two years of collaboration between ULS’s Digital Research Library and the American Cleft Palate Craniofacial Association, the archive is important to researchers and clinicians in fields ranging from speech pathology to surgery and dentistry.

“There is a long, very rich history in this archive,” said Ellen Cohn, a professor in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences who was instrumental in bringing together the volumes contained in the archive. In all, 105 issues and supplements representing the first 30 years of journal research are preserved, enabling clinicians and researchers to search nearly 1,300 articles online.

The resource is important for scholars and students worldwide and stands as an example of public service to the academic community, she said.

Prior to the archive’s existence, she said, researchers in areas with little access to the field’s scholarly literature sometimes duplicated research, unaware that the work already had been conducted and published by others.

Cohn said she was aware of ULS director Miller’s support for digital archives. After negotiations with the American Cleft Palate Craniofacial Association, plans were laid out for the archive. ULS helped select the most pristine journal copies to scan and shouldered the cost of digitizing and mounting the journals online.

The online archive had immediate impact. In its first 15 months, viewers from 37 countries looked at more than 38,000 pages from the archive.

In addition to its value to worldwide scholarship in the field of cleft palate research, the creation of the digital archive had another more mundane and very practical benefit: It freed up space that rapidly was being filled by paper copies of the old journals and other materials that Cohn’s mentors entrusted to her as they downsized their personal libraries. “You can’t imagine what my office looked like,” she said, adding that several carloads of books, slides and files had begun to overwhelm her space.

ULS’s Deliyannides said the University intentionally began with the strategy of subject-based archives, but the concept of an institutional archive has been on the radar here for five or six years.

“Only now are faculty at the point that they understand the need for a general-purpose repository,” he said. Awareness has been raised through recent developments such as the creation of an institutional archive at Harvard that by default houses faculty publications unless the authors choose to opt out and the National Institutes of Health’s new requirement that publications springing from research it funds be made available (after an embargo period to allow for journal publication) in an open access archive, PubMed Central.

“A lot of things are converging,” Deliyannides said, as ULS prepares for a September launch of Pitt’s institutional repository. “The time is right.”

The repository will provide a permanent electronic home for research documents generated at Pitt. Deliyannides said the repository is intended for documents such as those that would be published in scholarly journals or professional society newsletters. The repository also could contain data files or other electronic files that support that research. The archive is not intended as a place for non-research materials such as institutional records, learning objects for classroom instruction or student portfolios, Deliyannides said.

Authors would not be required to place their work into the open-access archive, but would be able to make submissions voluntarily.

“We realize that at the beginning, the IR (institutional repository) will only contain a small fraction of Pitt’s research output, but authors who contribute will know that they are providing free and open access to the world, they are increasing their own visibility and that of their department and institution as a whole, and they can have confidence that the ULS will preserve their work in electronic form into the future,” Deliyannides said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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