Last month Kathleen Fitzpatrick announced the launch of a new open access repository for the humanities, CORE. I love repositories and I love open access; so, I'm happy to see it. As a new repository, CORE has the advantage of an existing collection of users, members of MLA Commons--an academic social network that hopes to grow into a larger network for the humanities. MLA Commons/CORE is not the first academic social network to enter the repository space, but it's the right direction for repository development. Even so, it's a reactionary development and it's about a decade too late.
Academia.edu and ResearchGate (RG) have proven that scholarly authors want academic social networking--these authors might poo-poo the notion in department meetings, but when they return to their desks they succumb to barrage of promotional emails from RG and Academia.edu and create profiles on the sites. Now that the sites have active users, luring a portion of them into uploading a few articles or book chapters (copyright be-damned), is not so hard. In this context, the work of uploading an article is akin to posting a nice family photo to Facebook or posting your latest promotion on LinkedIn. It's not a challenge to the predatory pricing of commercial publishing; it's not an altruistic commitment to sharing knowledge with a world of readers; it is, rather, a moment for celebrating professional accomplishments.
I wish that library-supported institutional repositories (IRs) had invested more effort in facilitating social networking, but libraries have a long history for quiet spaces and shushing. Libraries like metadata and preservation; social networks are full of chatter. Metadata and preservation are good things, but they do not attract active users--people interested in building an online connections.
So, should IRs scramble to build social-networking features into their software platforms? Probably not--the market-share is elsewhere and one's academic social network is much broader than the members of a single institution. It would make more sense for IRs to work seamlessly with the social-networking platform of choice. I know that there are some efforts to make this happen, but they are limited by the technical specifications of the many IR software systems and social-networking platforms. If we could start over, would it have been advantageous to pool resources to develop a universal IR system? One that would be exposed, so to speak, to easy ingest in the social-networking tool of choice? Or if not building the one IR to rule them all, why not adopt technical standards that would make it easier for other sites to use our IRs? Wasn't that part of the point of all that careful metadata people have been creating? And what about the OAI-PMH?
I think the IR software development game is in a world where less is more--competing platforms, new tools for uploading and managing content, dueling disciplinary sites ... these are all developments for people that are focused on the wrong customer, the repository manager. These well-intended efforts--efforts that, as a repository manager, I encourage--are ignored by most authors. For most authors, the IR is just another website and kind of an ugly one at that. IRs were designed, like many libraries, on the assumption that content is king--it is not. People, also known as "users," rule the Internet. IRs do not collect users, but social networks do! So, a social network that moonlights as a repository (even a poor repository), is likely to outperform most IRs. Less would be more: fewer ways to run a repository; fewer teams of people developing new tools; more collaboration across all existing repository platforms; more effort on non-profit, open source systems that focus on people first and content second.
The IR is a powerful tool for increasing open access to scholarship--as such, I'm proud to use it. But, it just might turn out that the social network is the real engine of open access--and if it is, now what?