Before my PhD I worked as Repository Manager at the University of Cambridge, and saw first hand how an institutional repository can benefit researchers both in disseminating their work, and in finding useful resources created by others. When the repository is your entire working life, it’s so important to you that it becomes very easy to assume that everyone at a university knows what a repository is, and how important it is, as well as how it is a great place to find research (similarly when I worked at an energy company I didn’t understand why all the customers were not preoccupied by taking regular meter readings).
A conversation with one of my fellow students the other day highlighted for me that actually some people are unaware of what a great resource an institutional repository is, and the potential benefits it could have for them. In this particular instance, she was having difficulty in obtaining a digital copy of a thesis from another institution – my immediate question was whether she had tried their repository, and quite understandably really, she hadn’t. I saw her today and she thanked me for the advice, as she was able to locate the thesis she needed and download it immediately without having to request it from anywhere. I’m guessing a lot of other research students (particularly fellow newbies) will also be unaware of how useful institutional repositories can be, so hopefully this post will be helpful.
For a lot of the materials you require for your research, your institution will already have a subscription, or the items will be available Open Access. However, if you come across a paywall for an article, it might be worth checking to see if the author’s accepted manuscript is available to download from their institutional repository. Usually this can be found by simply Googling the article title and author(s) (repositories tend to have pretty good search engine optimisation – SEO), but sometimes you might have to determine the institution(s) of the author(s), find the repository (e.g. by Googling ‘[Institution name] repository’, then search for the article within it.
If you’re looking for a thesis (as in the case above), many universities now require, or strongly encourage, PhD students to make a digital copy available via their institutional repository. It can often be easiest to search for these via the British Library’s EThOS service, but if the information is incomplete or a download is not available, it could be worth checking the institution’s repository just in case it has not linked through to EThOS correctly (this is what happened in the case I encountered).
Institutional repositories can also be a really good source of datasets, images, video, software code and other research outputs that are often not available via traditional publications. Provided that the metadata (the information about the resource) is of sufficient quality, repository records are usually very informative about whether the material can be reused and in what context, as well as providing details about who to contact regarding permissions if necessary.
Once you start producing research outputs of your own, sharing this research via a repository can be a great way of engaging with the wider community, both within and outside of academia – and for some publications, submitting your manuscript to your institution’s repository is mandatory. For this reason, there is a large amount of material encouraging researchers to share their outputs in repositories, but not a lot about using repositories. Hopefully, this blog post will go a small way to redressing that balance – repositories contain a wealth of material that should be used, otherwise they’re just digital bins filled with material that has been dutifully but grudgingly deposited for no apparent reason.