CORE and the Commons: Digital Scholarship, Collaboration, and Open Access in the Humanities

This week it was reported that Berlin-based ResearchGate, a social networking site designed for scientists to share research, received $52.6m in investment funds from a variety of sources, including BIll Gates (previous investor), Goldman Sachs, and The Wellcome Trust. This news is another development in a continuing saga and conversation surrounding commercial services (i.e., ResearchGate, Academia.edu, Mendeley) and the companies that own them, managing the scholarly profiles and content of researchers. While ResearchGate promotes a mission of connecting “the world of science and make research open to all,” open access advocates and those working in scholarly communications are quick to point out that these platforms are not open access repositories.

In a blog post from 2015, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Associate Executive Director and Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association (MLA), pointed out academia.edu, for example, is in no way affiliated with an academic institution despite the .edu domain (they obtained the address prior to the 2001 restrictions). “This does not imply anything necessarily negative about the network’s model or intent,” Fitzpatrick said,  “but it does make clear that there are a limited number of options for the network’s future: at some point, it will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down.”

Much like we shouldn’t rely on Instagram to serve as our personal digital photo repository, researchers and academics shouldn’t rely on these commercial platforms for long term preservation of and access to their content. Hence, the work of open access institutional and disciplinary repositories takes on a certain imperative in the scholarly sphere. Those at Humanities Commons recognized this need, and in 2015 launched CORE, the Commons Open Repository Exchange, originally a digital repository for MLA members to share and archive “all forms of scholarly communication, from conference papers to syllabi, published articles to data sets,” now open to anyone who joins Humanities Commons. I spoke with Nicky Agate, Head of Digital Initiatives in the Office of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association to discuss CORE, in light of national attention garnered in a recent Forbes article about the monetization of scholarly writing.

Lily: Can you talk a little bit about the project’s background and development? What about the scholarly climate made the time right for this sort of initiative?

Nicky: With MLA Commons, which launched in 2013, we already had the academic social networking infrastructure in place: robust profiles, academic blogs, and a collaborative discussion area for each of the MLA’s sub-disciplinary communities, as well as member-created special-interest groups. It seemed like a natural next step to facilitate the legal sharing of our members’ work. We realized that traditional publishing, in a knowledge environment that is not only increasingly digital and increasingly networked but also increasingly open, wasn’t necessarily meeting all our members’ needs, perhaps because their libraries could no longer afford to buy as many humanities journals, or because they were unaffiliated with an institution and had no access whatsoever to traditionally published scholarship, or because they were graduate students who needed to get their work out there faster than the lag time between the submission of a manuscript and its publication would allow, or because they were working in emerging fields that weren’t being featured on scholarly publishers’ lists yet. In other disciplines, preprints serve as a means to get ideas out quickly, but in the humanities, things were still moving at a snail’s pace. Scholars were reacting by taking to the likes of ResearchGate and Academia.edu, but we wanted to build something that not only allowed work to be shared (legally), but also that allowed it to be archived for future generations.

We also wanted to encourage the sharing of scholarly work that goes beyond established forms like the book and the journal article: blog posts and other forms of public writing; conference papers; data sets; creative works such as fiction and translation; syllabi and digital learning objects for the classroom. These, too, are forms of scholarly communication, and as such deserve to be both valued as professional contributions and made openly available in a social knowledge environment such as the Commons.

Lily: In a recent article in Forbes, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Scholarly Communication of the Modern Language Association and Principal Investigator of CORE was quoted from her blog on the potential roadblocks for scholars who rely on for-profit venues like academia.edu for sharing research. Does Commons have a marketing strategy to draw users to OA solutions like CORE? What danger do ‘signal boost’ premium services place on the reach and impact of scholarship?

Nicky: Well, we’re well aware that building the thing doesn’t magically make people come. However, because we’re in the early phases of a public beta release, our marketing strategy has focused on word of mouth, outreach at scholarly meetings, and responsive, iterative development based on the feedback of our early adopters. One drawback, of course, is that we’re a very small, nonprofit team (three developers, Kathleen, and myself) and we just don’t have the capital to wager aggressive marketing campaigns. On the other hand, we’re a very small nonprofit team offering a scholar-driven alternative to market- and profit-driven enterprises, and we believe that there are enough scholars out there who respect privacy (their own and that of their readers) and want the kind of robust community features we offer to give us a go! Our commitment to archiving and promoting non-traditional forms of scholarly communication, such as syllabi, data sets, and code, and treating such forms as published work (by minting DOIs) is another draw for many scholars.

Lily: CORE aims to serve as a repository and a site for humanities collaboration through its micro-communities. How would you gauge the success of this effort thus far? Any lessons learned or adjustments made? Has there been any discussion of incorporating an annotation layer into the repository interface?

Nicky: To many of our users, downloads and views equal success. What sets CORE apart from, say, an institutional repository is the social layer, the connection to niche communities of interest. We noticed very quickly that items shared with at least one such community were seeing something akin to 250% more downloads than those that were just deposited and left to fend for themselves (this makes sense, since in a way, those communities represent a ready audience for your work). Similarly, people who take the time to share their freshly minted DOI on social media channels and in listservs also see greater downloads and views of their work. If we were to go back and re-engineer the repository, I think we’d want to highlight these advantages up front, making it really clear to our members that this process will work for them. We’d also have integrated features such as social sharing of items deposited—which is coming very soon—right from the get-go. Finally, I wish we’d put together a robust Creative Commons tutorial before we launched; humanities scholars often don’t know about licensing, and so they end choosing the most restrictive one because they’re afraid someone will steal their ideas.

We launched a fairly bare-bones version of CORE, and now that we’ve gathered some valuable feedback, we want to work towards a truly integrated version of the repository that takes full advantage of the social functionality of the Commons as well as other open-access initiatives out there. For example, we’re working on a shared taxonomy between CORE, the interests a user puts in his or her profile, and Commons groups, so that we can suggest different areas of the site that might be of interest. We also want people to be able to deposit a blog post they put on the Commons in CORE in a single click, as well as display items they’ve put in the repository on their websites and blogs. Finally, one of our big goals for the next phase of CORE development is to work with scholarly communications librarians and institutional repository managers on a path to interoperability, so that people who are, say, faculty members of institution A and members of society B don’t have to deposit twice. We share the goals of opening up humanities research and increasing its visibility and impact in the world, so why not collaborate?

Lily: You mentioned scholars are often confused by Creative Commons licensing options. Unlike many institutional repositories, CORE does not require contributors assign a CC-BY license. Do you know how much material in the repository is available for re-use? How did Commons go about determining the appropriate approach to copyright and licensing?

Nicky: We’ve been following the lead of our Columbia University Library partners here, who allow individual depositors to assign the Creative Commons license of their choice in Columbia’s Academic Commons. I think many humanities scholars are wary of making their work available for reuse in case they are misrepresented, and so we didn’t want to force anyone to comply with any one kind of license. That said, this is an area where we’ve learned a lot from scholarly communications librarians, and we’re definitely looking at ways to educate our users about the benefits of, say, a CC-BY license, particularly when it comes to open educational resources.

Lily: This different perspective on licensing is one of several reasons open access has had a slower uptake by humanities scholars. Beyond publishing and copyright patterns (emphasis on monographs vs articles, single authors, etc.), and less funding often available than in other disciplines, are there other factors you would identify? How do you view Commons and CORE’s roles in an evolving scholarly culture in the humanities?

Nicky: I think the weight of the monograph and its frequent precursor—the doctoral dissertation—in the tenure and promotion process has meant that humanities scholars are reticent to share their ideas or their work openly. If you put years and years of work into something, I can understand why (a) you don’t want anyone to steal your ideas and (b) you might want the imprimatur of a heavyweight scholarly press—as well as the physicality of the book—at the end of it all. In a way, it boils down to the question of prestige, and I’m afraid that some humanities scholars still believe that if something is open access then it is somehow deficient in other ways. Not to mention the fact that, until fairly recently, open access monographs in the humanities were not really a thing. Fortunately, great initiatives such as Lever Press, Luminos, and, for articles, the Open Library of the Humanities are now going some way to counter that!  

We have made no secret of our support of grey literature and other non-traditional forms of scholarly communication as academic work, and we’ve been promoting platforms such as CommentPress, which some of our editors are currently using for open peer review, since the Commons launched in 2013. So certainly we hope that Humanities Commons and CORE can help bring about change in the way scholars communicate, collaborate, and share their work.

Lily: As you mentioned, the scope of CORE’s collection policy is quite broad, and includes multi-media formats, data sets, and even performances, though to date, most materials deposited have been text-based. Does CORE have a strategy to expand inclusion into these other formats?

Nicky: We don’t have an expansion strategy per se, because our goal is not to be exhaustive, but inclusive. If no one wants to upload a performance, then we’re not going to go chasing down performers and begging them to submit their work. On the other hand, we wanted to think broadly about what scholarly communication might mean for practitioners in different disciplines, and for people who work outside the academic humanities. We’ll be launching the College Art Association’s CAA Commons soon, and we envisage the percentage of media files in the repository increasing soon thereafter. If a musicological society were to come on board, we’d want them to be able to upload scores and recordings immediately.

Lily: Is CORE OAIS-compliant and intended for long term digital preservation beyond assignment of DOIs?

Nicky: Yes, CORE is OAIS-compliant, and thanks to our relationship with the Columbia University Libraries, all materials uploaded to CORE are stored in three locations, with two copies on Ipsilon and one on tape, and are then replicated every two hours. Impact is not just about the here and now: it is our intention to make the work of today’s scholars available to interested parties in the future as well!

Lily: Looking ahead, how is CORE’s strategic vision positioned for sustainability? Initial financial support came heavily from the NEH, yes? What would the project’s outlook be, if say, the current administration and Congress cut all funding for the NEH?

Nicky: CORE’s initial and current development has been funded in part by the NEH, yes, most recently by an implementation grant from the Office of Digital Humanities. Obviously, we can’t know what will befall the NEH under the current administration, but we are confident that we can keep developing and improving the product (albeit at potentially a slower pace than some of our users would like). To many scholars and societies, it is a key—if not the key—feature of Humanities Commons. Because of that, its future is very much integral to the future of Humanities Commons, whose sustainability model consists of support from a federation of scholarly societies in the humanities, each with its own separate Commons platform but with member profiles and materials uploaded to the repository living in the central, interdisciplinary hub.

About Lily Troia

Lily is the Digital Services Librarian at the College of William and Mary working at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in open access and research data management. This position follows completion of a Masters in Library and Information Science (MSLIS '16) at Simmons College School of Library and Information Science in Boston where she focused on cultural heritage, archives, and digital stewardship with a research emphasis on copyright and intellectual property.

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