The repository that isn’t there

Several European countries have moved in the direction of a national architecture for research information management. They do this for several reasons. One is because of the need to have in place efficient means of representing research performance to their governments, in exchange for government-provided research funding. Another is to make their research visible in a coherent way for public relations purposes. And a third is to support knowledge transfer and commercialization strategies, which feature ever more prominently in rationales for government research funding.

In Europe, it sometimes seems that the countries with the best developed national architectures for research are those whose institutions are least neurotic about being assessed for reward or punishment in the form of the division of a large research budget. Or, to put it another way, the UK has not yet developed its architecture very coherently. One country which has put a very integrated national architecture in place in recent years, however, is Ireland. And because its infrastructure is well-developed and coherent, the role of repositories within it is well thought-out, based on the need for open reporting, using systems which are intuitive enough to accept and manage the required content without the strain which can be so obvious in the UK.

At the recent innovative Repository Fringe meeting in Edinburgh, several of whose presentations are commendably made available in video format via Google Video, Niamh Brennan, Programme Manager for Research Information Systems & Services in Trinity College Dublin – one of our European Partners – revelled in the opportunity both to reveal how well-developed the Irish research architecture is, and in the Fringe’s encouragement to theatricality:

Friends, Romans (or Athenians of the North), I have come to bury the repository, not to praise it. The evil that repositories do lives after them – the good is oft interrèd with their bones; The noble Dorothea [Salo, from the University of Wisconsin, the opening keynote speaker] hath told us that the repository is ambitious; it has tried to do so many things, and has failed; if it were so, it was a grievous fault.

In a paper entitled CRIS Cross: the Repository in the Research Information System, she describes a nationally coherent research information infrastructure which is being built in Ireland. In this system, the humble institutional repository is so invisible to the researchers whose work is deposited in it, that it might almost be dead, for all that it intrudes into their consciousness. What is visible is its Research Support System (confusingly known as RSS), in which researcher images and CV details are accompanied by publication citations drawn from the repository. Some of the information in turn feeds expertiseireland, the island’s national research expertise portal. Records in the repository have been created in a variety of ways, including by purchase from Thomson Reuters. Academics feed the RSS, unaware that the repository sits behind the system. There is just the occasional hint, however, that there might be some other system lurking in the shadows, as in the invitation to upload the full-text.

All of this is consistent with the strategy which the Irish government has been funding since 1998 to improve the country’s competitive position as a knowledge-based economy. Universities have benefited from significant investment in research, and libraries have had funding which has allowed the development of a national e-resource portal, IReL, and a network of digital repositories with a common portal, IReL-Open. The commitment to Open Access research publication is proclaimed by the government itself. In recent months, the Irish Higher Education Authority has introduced a deposit mandate which Peter Suber applauds, though not as much as he did the earlier mandate by the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology, which he praised, as Niamh Brennan puts it, as ‘possibly the best mandate in the world’.

Niamh Brennan and an attentive scholar in party mode

Her presentation fits with a general sense across this Repository Fringe event that libraries are tired of being embarrassed about their ‘failed’ repositories (David de Roure of Southampton University, in his closing keynote, suggests we call them ‘datacentres’ and lose the connotations of repositories as places ‘where things go to die’). They would rather look at the bigger picture which Ireland clearly exemplifies, and see – or rather not see – repositories as essential components better kept out of sight. Had the Fringe participants turned up to bury the repository? ‘Are we here for a wake?’ asks Niamh. ‘Maybe it’s a wake in which the body has disappeared; maybe it’s Finnegan’s Wake?’ The busts of the famous Edinburgh scientists and scholars watching attentively in their party hats seemed to symbolize this new spirit of defiance.