Are repositories the key to institutional resilience?

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Harriet Clark

The repository has become an increasingly important part of an institution’s infrastructure, writes Harriet Clark

I think it’s fair to say that the purpose of a repository has fundamentally evolved to become a far more encompassing and essential tool for institutions across the world since Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic.

The repository (sometimes referred to as an institutional repository) has expanded in its use and purpose with many more stakeholders realising the additional value it can reward them with, notably by using it for open access to share knowledge and materials and increase collaboration.

For intents and purposes of this article, when I think of an institutional repository, I’m referring to a central hub which houses digital (or digitised) assets and research data that are either the intellectual output of the institution or are owned by them. For example, the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is held by the Huntington Library, along with a vast Hispanic collection of artefacts.

The primary use for an institute to own a repository is to enable researchers to archive their research output and thus, improve the visibility, usage and impact of its results and findings. Additional benefits include:

• Capturing and managing intellectual assets;
• Ensuring the long-term security and accessibility of valuable digital assets;
• Enabling correct access for students, teachers and other stakeholders to search and use the assets held;
• Keeping history and cultures alive; and
• Regulatory compliance where applicable.

What changes have taken place?

Over the last 18 months, the repository has become an increasingly important and integral part of an institution’s infrastructure. Institutions, organisations and individuals have had to digitally keep pace to simply remain operable, causing a significant reliance on technology that may not have existed pre-Covid.

The pandemic has certainly caused the education industry to take note of the fundamental requirement of digitisation and the transformation which comes along with it. One such example is the Covid-19 repository that was established to record and monitor response to the pandemic, including how artificial intelligence (AI) and data were used to tackle the pandemic. Of course, the findings are still ongoing but so far, it discovered that in the face of a public health crisis, community data sharing increased and data sharing across borders facilitated the discovery of new vaccines and treatments.

Traditional institutional publishing methods, approaches and processes are now not – or were never – robust enough to ensure seamless accessibility to and collaboration of digital assets and data.

This is not to say that the original use or reliance on a repository was wrong – not in the slightest. It’s simply the case that its purpose and use have expanded. With remote working, learning and teaching becoming the norm across the globe, users have had to be able to search, access and use digital content instantaneously to be able to continue with their tasks. This also required many stakeholders to digitise their operations and enable correct user access.

The repository has evolved from being predominantly used as a storage solution for research data, to become a hub for learning and collaboration. According to Universities UK Open Access (OA) Coordination Group, institutional repositories are ‘now meeting a broad national need in support of OA and in so doing form an essential component of national research infrastructure.’

A changed outlook

Potentially one of the greatest changes witnessed is the surge and acceptance of open access to research data, study materials and even, artefacts and special collections. Without the ability to travel to universities, research centres, libraries or anywhere, people have had to almost exclusively turn to the internet to fill research and knowledge gaps. Open access to materials has become a necessity in keeping educational research and learning moving forward.

Additionally, many teams, projects and facilities have realised other benefits of open access, namely improved collaboration and reduced time taken for research projects to be approved and marketed as access to essential information is available in a digital instant. I think we could be as bold to say that this has been an industry innovation

Digitised content has changed from being a preservation medium to the primary access point. Could it become the norm that an e-textbook or virtual library tour become the learning materials of the future?

Accelerating research and study

Covid-19 has indeed been a catalyst for change. Staff and researchers have had to make content digitally available. Students had to switch to fully learn online and required instant access to digital content, digitised artefacts, raw data and more, to be able to continue with their studies or research projects. Institutions and organisations have had to upskill and accept a new way of working, learning, teaching and of course, living. And these are just a few cases in point.

There’s no doubt that we are living in a digital age. It’s also incredibly likely that technology will continue to become ever-more sophisticated, with the benefits realised over the last 18 months continuing to build on the foundation created to accelerate research and study.

The expanded use of the repository has enabled greater amounts of research to be placed into the world. Differing institutions, researchers, students and teachers have been able to search and access citeable materials and create a collaborative community in the process.

One such example is the Open Data Workshop Arkivum held with CERN in the second half of last year. The event sought to build on several years’ work, to improve access to, and the use of, data released through the CERN Open Data Portal.

The workshop demonstrated the value in making research data openly accessible for scientists from different institutes. Rather than expecting participants to download the data and software themselves (not a practical approach due to the large data volumes involved) or needing CERN to provide remote access to their infrastructure, the approach was to allow scientists to run CERN scientific software in Google Cloud Platform (GCP) against the archived CMS data.

This one example showcases how a traditional approach can be evolved to enable progressive sharing of research data. Additionally, this workshop reflects the shift to ‘bring applications to the data’ so it can be processed ‘in-situ’ rather than relying on individuals to download vast volumes of data to their local compute environments.

More open, accessible and collaborative means of data use can evolve the process to be less time consuming and inefficient.

Who knows? Maybe by looking beyond individualised study and research will unlock the potential for future discoveries.

What will the new normal look like?

While we don't know for certain what things will look like, it seems increasingly likely there will be a blended approach between face-to-face interaction and online consumption.

Looking ahead, as individuals and institutions have accepted the use of technology to improve efficiencies and boost collaboration, this will likely continue to increase and remain an integral part of the future educational landscape.

The expanded use of the repository and subsequent evolution of open access, digitised processes, upskilling and sharing of materials will equip institutions with the ability to bounce back better, stronger and more resilient against future upheavals. However, it’s worth noting that appropriate long-term management of data and digital assets will be essential in ensuring the robustness of an institution’s data management strategy, whether that be through a digital archiving or digital preservation solution.

Harriet Clark is content manager at Arkivum