Some implications of "digital" for scholarly writing and publishing

Figshare and the Institutional Repository

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The rise of new services such as Figshare raises some interesting questions on who will own an increasingly important part of the academic content market. It is a battle between content repositories, institutional repositories and consolidated services.


Content repositories, such as publisher journal collections, exist to facilitate the academic user journey. Traditionally these contained nothing but articles; today they are much more. As content repositories move closer to how researchers find the content, and then track what the researcher wants to do with the content, there are increasing efforts to provide more help along that user journey. For example, if the researcher wants to see full details of the underlying research done that led to a scholarly article, as well as the data generated by that research, it is increasingly recognised that data and research for an article should also be made available


A publisher could provide such services simply by offering authors the opportunity to upload additional content and then to make it available via an indexing tool such as a DOI (digital object identifier).  Consolidated services such as Figshare can also provide such a repository – if the publisher pays. Alternatively, an institutional repository may do the same task, but typically only for one institution.  


The benefit of a consolidated service, of course, is that it will be much larger than any institutional repository or publisher collection.  The consolidated service makes its money by owning the repository and selectively charging for access to it – this is the “free for you to join, free for them to sell” model (Mark Hahnel, Figshare: “We are a commercial company but you can upload data for free.”). Figshare’s offer is free to the author (up to a certain size of repository), but not to publishers – Figshare charges the publisher for making this additional content available. 


Institutional repositories are now widespread across academic institutions. DSpace, one of the largest, claims to have over 1,000 institutions using their open-source software. Other software providers of institutional repositories include Fedora and Hydra. But the big drawback of the IR is scale. Even though it provides a means within the institution by which researchers can share their work, it is inconvenient to search across many individual institutional repositories.  without common searching (or a common repository), an institutional repository will always have a limited value.


Hence perhaps the most interesting developments in institutional repositories are attempts to join up a larger service – for example, NSCI (the US National Science Communication Institute). They state: 


“we’ve been coordinating a conversation about building an “All-Scholarship Repository.” … The idea here is to build a single repository that serves all research archiving needs—institutional, corporate, government. Full data and text would be included, as well as sophistical user-interface and analysis tools. Ownership would probably be distributed, like the Digital Public Library of America, so that every entity (and discipline) could manage their inputs, create the landing pages that make the most sense for them (emphasizing the right authors, studies, etc.), and so on.”


This sounds like a great idea – as long as a sufficient number of institutions join it to make it simpler to search here rather than in individual repositories. Just to complicate matters further, Figshare has since 2013 offered an institutional version of its service, offering institutions in other words a paid institutional repository managed on their behalf. 

So which is better, the publisher content repoitory, the institutional repository or the consolidated service? 

Of course, in the end, the best solution is not necessary the most sophisticated or the simplest. It will be the one with the largest number of users, because in a market such as this, the largest repository will tend to subsume all the smaller ones. For the moment, however, the players in the market (institutions and publishers) have some opportunity to shape that market. For institutions, at least, the strategy should be to form the biggest possible partnership with related organisations, and ensure the institution has some control in the process.  




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  1. Mark Hahnel

    Some clarification
    Thanks for this. I just wanted to clarify that the way this is written looks like I’m quoted as saying “free for you to join, free for them to sell”. I have discussed this idea and our business model at figshare in length here:

    We are looking to be sustainable through services for publishers and institutions. We’re not in the business of selling access to academic content. That model (and concept) is broken and unnecessary in todays world.

  2. Gareth Knight

    Searching multiple repositories
    Interesting discussion, though you’re mistaken in suggesting that people need to search each institutional repository to find content. As mentioned in the “All-Scholarship Repository” link, DSpace/Fedora/otherspublish metadata in a machine readable form using the OAI Metadata Harvesting Protocol (OAI-PMH). This metadata can be harvested by any 3rd party and included in a shared catalogue. Community services such as and exist, which allow you to search across any registered repository without having to worry if the institution has paid a shared service fee

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