Institutional Repositories and the Market of Ideas

Robert P. Spindler

University Archivist

Arizona State University



Faculty members at universities across the country now have many options for publishing their formal and informal intellectual products. Commercial scholarly journals (paper and electronic), open access scholarly journals, personal, departmental and college websites, scholarly association websites, and now Institutional Repositories (IR’s) are all competing for the intellectual output of university faculty.


Typically faculty members choose a publisher or journal for its academic reputation, since publication in prestigious journals is usually rewarded in tenure and promotion applications.[1] The strong reputation of a small number of journal titles (often those of commercial publishers) is visible to administrators and members of higher-level tenure review committees who may have a superficial understanding of their colleagues’ field. Recently university administrators have started to judge the impact of particular research publications by accessing citation indexes that count references to articles in the “core journals” of certain disciplines.[2]


Scholarly Publication, Scholarly Communication and Prestige


Introduction of more competition in the form of the other publishing venues described at the beginning of this article, and new forms of scholarly communication  (e.g. gray literature or pre-print publication, threaded discussions and streamed conference presentations), have the potential to broaden the visible market for ideas and ultimately diversify and advance scholarly inquiry. But only some venues are likely to convey the prestige necessary for publishing faculty to receive tenure and promotion in the traditional evaluation system. How can an alternative publisher achieve stature in this environment? Are there different levels of stature associated with scholarly publication, scholarly communication and digital asset management?


“Institutional repositories, by capturing, preserving, and disseminating a university's collective intellectual capital, serve as meaningful indicators of an institution's academic quality.” “Where this increased visibility reflects a high quality of scholarship, this demonstration of value can translate into tangible benefits…”[3] But conversely, if this increased visibility does not show a high quality of scholarship (e.g. unreviewed gray literature, or worse, the next faux atomic fusion discovery), the university reputation may not be enhanced and the scholarly community may not seek this IR for quality information. Small bodies of high quality content may be buried in larger quantities of lower quality content, reducing the visibility of quality work. Unrestricted IR submissions proposed by some institutions may not satisfy a university’s desire to enhance its prestige, especially amongst “aspirational” universities. Professional visibility, prestige and tenure continue to serve as primary motivators for faculty, and they are currently associated with formal scholarly publication rather than newer forms of scholarly communication.


Prestige may be primarily associated with the university for some faculty, and with professional associations for other faculty. When a prestigious university hires a faculty member the university itself may replace the scholarly association as the validator, whereas faculty of “aspirational” universities may count upon scholarly associations and their editorial boards (often populated by scholars from prestigious institutions) for validation and recognition of their work. Prestigious universities will likely compete with discipline-based repositories more effectively than “aspirational” universities because faculty members at prestigious institutions may associate their career accomplishment with their university rather than with their discipline. If true, IR’s at “aspirational” universities must create incentives to encourage faculty participation to compete with the name journals and universities until external scholars and professional communities recognize their IR’s as sources of quality content.


IR’s concentrate content at the university level and facilitate institutional branding, but they may disperse content related to a specific discipline but produced at several universities. With substantial faculty and staff participation, IR’s could eventually concentrate the scholarly output of a university in a single place, but unless those IR’s are the recipients of incoming links or search queries from sites and search engines frequented by the related scholarly community, they will be forgotten.


Academic institutions should consider how they could attract the attention of faculty stars from different scholarly communities in an effort to build prestige. In addition to collecting published or unpublished works of their own faculty, scholarly associations or universities could begin to serve as effective aggregators (or collocators of links) instead of, or in addition to acting as direct scholarly publishers. The value and convenience added by new aggregations of content and well-formatted collocations of links to quality content can bring recognition and prestige to the university and associated faculty.


Another way that aspirational universities can compete for prestige is by offering online services that address unmet needs of certain disciplines. Research at the University of Rochester suggests that some faculty want IR’s that allow them to share works in progress with their colleagues, “They want something that will support the authoring process, not just the finished product.”[4] This concept may be extended to providing chat rooms or shared workspaces within or adjacent to an IR so that it becomes a virtual meeting place as well as a stable repository for finished products.


IR’s should not be monolithic across the university, but should be responsive to the variant needs of individual scholarly communities and the host institution’s position within them.[5] Aspirational universities may choose uneven development and support of their IR, strategically focusing on certain programs of excellence within their institution that can attract the scholarship and participation of the leaders in their field.  Programs of excellence may have highly selective guest editorial boards, and lesser programs may choose to facilitate less formal scholarly communication initiatives in an attempt to build institutional prestige in those areas rather than in formal scholarly publishing.


If only the prestigious universities have successful IR’s, and faculty from prestigious institutions dominate the editorial boards of the scholarly associations, we risk the same lack of competition and homogeneity of ideas feared by critics of news media conglomerates and those opposed to copyright extension. Innovation suffers in this model. Conversely, large bodies of lesser quality research with poor indexing and uncertain accessibility also impede the advance of knowledge.


Digital Asset Management


IR literature conflates scholarly publishing, scholarly communication and digital asset management, probably because all these are possible IR functions. But there are substantial differences between these goals, the resources required to reach them and the relative prestige associated with them. We have seen that formal scholarly publication requires external review and validation from prestigious faculty. Digital scholarly communication offers informal and fast publication, community review and comment. Hosting vehicles of scholarly communication for a specific discipline may have some beneficial impacts on institutional reputation, particularly if the vehicle attracts participation from prestigious faculty and/or some editorial control is exercised to maintain quality.


Comprehensive digital asset management (DAM) is a much more expensive and ambitious undertaking that may or may not enhance an institution’s stature. Typical DAM implementations address internal information assets, and they may include the raw materials of scholarship (e.g. digitized archival materials, research data) rather than research articles ready for publication. DAM implementations are usually internally focused, and they declare and defend institutional ownership of discrete digital objects. Often the culture of DAM is proprietary and closed, as opposed to the scholarly communication environment, which many academics believe should be free and open.


In recent years the US Congress and federal agencies have inquired about digital asset management for university research records. In 1999 The Office of Management and Budget caused some concern in the research community when it expanded public accessibility requirements for raw data produced during federally funded research in its OMB Circular A-110. More recently the National Institutes of Health have issued new regulations requiring recipients of grant awards over $500,000 to declare how they will preserve and make available raw data and products of their research, or explain why they are unable to do so.[6]  Regulations of federal funding agencies may compel faculty to contribute to an IR, if only to avoid incurring the substantial costs of digital asset curation in their laboratories. It remains to be seen whether funding agencies will eventually require specifications for retention such as those proposed to certify “Trustworthy Digital Repositories”.[7]


Individual digital assets (e.g. digitized photographs) of universities are value-neutral in terms of scholarly recognition unless their quantity, quality and accessibility reach a critical mass and become an essential resource for a specific discipline. Prestigious DAM requires possession of unique high quality assets, a commitment to broad distribution through permissive ownership or licensing, and substantial investments in metadata and infrastructure so the assets are trustworthy and reliable (i.e. found on a continuing basis). Simply quantifying and presenting digital assets will not withstand academic scrutiny when reliable discovery, utility and longevity of this content may be in question. Disappearing or inaccessible content (through withdrawal, digital corruption, possessive rights management or poor indexing) will not enhance the reputation of its host in the scholarly communities.


Digital asset management (DAM) is a positive step for universities since most institutions do not do this comprehensively, and some assets are being lost and/or rebuilt at considerable expense. However comprehensive DAM is a “blank check” unless policy decisions are made to control the scope and costs of acquisition and maintenance. Both the IR and DAM communities assert the value of permanent retention, but neither has identified continuing funding sources or specific strategies (other than simple bit storage) to support this. Defining collecting scope and establishing format standards are two ways to control IR costs. IR and/or DAM scope and costs should be evaluated with an eye toward the institutional benefit derived.


Faculty and Digital Preservation


Regardless of the increasing research and publication documenting the challenges of long-term digital preservation,[8] effective or comprehensive DAM does not serve as an incentive for faculty contributions to an IR at this time. Schonfeld and Guthrie indicated that faculty members believe preservation of electronic journals is important, but effective archiving does not drive their choice of publishers.[9] Richard K. Johnson writes that faculty cannot be convinced to adhere to digital asset format standards for “attitudinal and practical reasons”[10]. Robert Spindler has suggested that format standards for electronic theses and dissertations may infringe upon academic freedom.[11]


Although Clifford Lynch has correctly identified the problems of distributed and unprofessionally maintained digital assets[12], research suggests that most university faculty only generally perceive the threats of digital obsolescence or total loss. They do not understand the important role they may play in preservation through their selection of production technologies and effective maintenance of their content in the pre-formal publication stages. Faculty may also influence preservation through their selection of publishing venues, since some venues have made the investments necessary to sustain their electronic content. Unfortunately, faculty members believe that the “archival journal” of their discipline will still be archival when it moves to the web, and preservation issues will be handled by someone else.


Non-professional management of digital assets is unreliable, and preserving non-standard materials will be far more expensive and problematic. As web-preservation researchers from Denmark recently commented, “We face a trade-off between how much we can preserve and the resources we can spend on preserving it. It would make little sense to allocate many resources to correct preservation of a file format that appears only a few times in a billion object archive.[13]


In the end, products made with customized or narrow market tools will only be saved if the value of the information justifies higher costs for preservation, and the creators and curators of this information take action early in the product development life cycle. This is unlikely because most often the long-term value of research is not immediately recognized, and explicit preservation of digital assets is rarely funded. As a result, non-standard content is at substantial risk. Faculty should be made aware of the significance of their product development and publication venue choices.


At the same time institutions and especially IR’s also have an obligation to maintain standards and adapt them to meet the changing needs of faculty and the advance of technology. In the long run, those institutions that have successfully retained and made the best content widely available, and facilitate the advancement of new media scholarship rather than retard it, will attract the best scholars and scholarship of the future and realize the greatest prestige.


Helping IR’s Compete in the Market of Ideas:


Here are a few suggestions for how universities can position themselves to effectively compete with faculty or departmental websites and scholarly and commercial publishers:


1)     Universities, especially aspirational universities, must create incentives in the tenure review process to encourage faculty to publish in their IR’s. Simply building IR’s will not ensure faculty participation at most universities. Monetary incentives may be quite effective given the low rate of author compensation offered by scholarly publishers.


2)     If aspirational universities solicit unpublished material for their IR, they must seek participation of external reviewers from prestigious universities to validate their IR content, or other forms of validation must be developed that are widely recognized by the target scholarly communities. They may build vehicles of scholarly communication that assist faculty in the creation of new research products, as well as IR’s that store the resulting scholarship.


3)     Non-commercial aggregators are just as important as direct scholarly publishers because they give efficient subject-specific visibility to IR content. Universities will be competing with commercial and non-commercial publishers for market share, seeking links to the best quality content from IR’s across the world.


4)     Faculty members need more information about the risks and costs of digital preservation and the value of adhering to standards. Special funding to support continuing maintenance and preservation of university digital assets may emerge as an incentive for faculty participation, especially as losses of digital assets maintained by formal publishers, scholarly associations and local servers receive more attention from the media.


5)     Institutions should decide if they are building IR’s for digital asset management, scholarly communication support, or formal scholarly publishing. All three are possible, but the costs and implications of this choice vary substantially.


6)     Prestige is the province of university faculty of specific disciplines, and of a small number of research universities, it is not conveyed by publishers. Aspirational universities need to find new models for deriving prestige from scholarly publishing, scholarly communication or digital asset management.

[1] Foster, Andrea L., “Papers Wanted”, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 25, 2004, Information Technology section, p 37.


[2] Thomson’s Web of Science product includes several discipline-based citation indexes. (Accessed August 30, 2004)


[3] Johnson, Richard K., “Institutional Repositories: Partnering with Faculty to Enhance Scholarly Communication”,D-Lib Magazine,  8(11) November 2002. (Accessed May 31, 2004)


[4] Foster, “Papers...” p. 37.

[5] Cronin, Blaise, scholarly Communication and Epistemic Cultures, Washington DC, Association of Research Libraries, 2003. (Accessed May 25, 2004)

[6] Proctor, Michael, “No Free FOIA Gras: The 1999 Changes to Circular A-110 Information Access Provisions”, ECURE 1999: Preservation and Access for Electronic College and University Records Presentations, ; Lynch, Clifford, “Keynote Address”, ECURE 2004: Preservation and Access for Electronic College and University Records Presentations,; National Institutes of Health, “Final NIH Statement On Sharing Research Data”, February 26, 2003. (Accessed August 23, 2004)

[7] Research Libraries Group, “RLG and OCLC Issue Final Report on Trusted Digital Repositories: Attributes and Responsibilities”, (Accessed August 23, 2004)

[8] See the Digital Preservation Bibliography at


[9] Schonfeld, Roger C. and Kevin Guthrie, What Faculty Think of Electronic Resources: 2003, Washington D.C., Coalition for Networked Information, 2004. (Accessed June 14, 2004)


[10] Johnson, 2002.


[11] Spindler, Robert P. “Archival Considerations for ETD’s”, Coalition for Networked Information Fall Meeting, San Antonio, TX, December, 2002.'s.cni.ppt (Accessed August 23, 2004.)


[12] Lynch, Clifford A. "Institutional Repositories: Essential Infrastructure for Scholarship in the Digital Age" ARL, no. 226 (February 2003): 1-7. (Accessed May 31, 2004)


[13] Christensen-Dalsgaard, Birte, Web Archive Activities in Denmark”, RLG Diginews, 8(3) June 15, 2004. (Accessed June 21, 2004).