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Universities and Libraries Envision a ‘Federated System’ for Public Access to Research

As federal agencies scramble to meet an August 22 deadline to comply with a recent White House directive to expand public access to research, a group of university and library organizations says it has a workable, higher-education-driven solution. This week, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and the Association of Research Libraries are offering a plan they call the Shared Access Research Ecosystem, or Share.

Share would expand on systems that universities and libraries have long been building to support the sharing and preservation of research. The groups behind Share have been circulating a document, dated June 7, that lays out the basics behind the idea.

Academic institutions have invested heavily in “the infrastructure, tools, and services necessary to provide effective and efficient access to their research and scholarship,” the document says. “Share envisions that universities will collaborate with the federal government and others to host cross-institutional digital repositories of public-access research publications.”

Under Share, each university or research institute that gets federal research money would designate an existing digital repository “as the site where its articles will be deposited for public access and long-term preservation,” meeting the requirements of the Obama administration’s policy. Many universities already have digital repositories up and running. Those that do not could piggyback on the repositories of other institutions. A smaller institution could designate one of its state’s public universities as its deposit site, for instance.

The document also emphasizes elements that would be essential to make Share a viable way to comply with the new public-access policy. For example, principal investigators would need identifiers such as Orcid numbers to track their research activity, and every publication would need to have copyright-license terms embedded in its metadata so that repository systems would know how to handle it.

With those protocols in place, Share would be “a federated system of university repositories,” John C. Vaughn, the Association of American Universities’ executive vice president, said in an interview. “Potentially there’s a way to connect the whole corpus of U.S. higher-education institutions that receive federal research funding.”

Mr. Vaughn said that the White House directive, issued in February by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, fits well with universities’ and libraries’ drive to store and share scholarship. Universities that receive federal research money “have longstanding relationships with these agencies,” he said. “If we’re going to be building these repositories anyway and want to interconnect them for our own purposes, we’ve got the framework of a system that could manage the content and provide the access that the OSTP directive is calling for.”

Prue Adler, associate executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, emphasized that the libraries and universities involved have a keen interest in supporting the government’s call. “We very much want to see the OSTP policy be successful,” she said. “We worked with others for years to make it a reality. What we’re now focused on through Share and through campus outreach is successful implementation.”

Publishers have already proposed their own solution to the problem of how to comply with the White House directive, which affects agencies that have external research budgets of $100-million or more. Called the Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States, or Chorus, their plan would rely on infrastructure publishers already have in place, effectively making them a prime channel for greater public access to journal articles and data sets supported by federal research grants.

“There are a lot of similarities between our proposal for this federated system of repositories and the publishers’ proposal for interconnecting all of their Web sites that hold their published material,” Mr. Vaughn said. “But they’re also saying to us, the universities, ‘We could handle a lot of your compliance requirements.’”

Even if that sounds appealing, Mr. Vaughn said, publishers and universities are likely to disagree about how much should be made available in a federated system and what could be done with that material. The Share proposal, for instance, envisions that text- and data-mining and other reuse of research will eventually be possible, as long as the necessary permissions are in place.

“I think we have to keep working with publishers,” Mr. Vaughn said, although he conceded that “a lot of my colleagues don’t agree.” Managing millions of research articles without publishers’ help is a daunting task, he said. “But I think publishers need to change the way they operate to become a trusted partner in that system.”

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