IRs: Disruptors or the Disrupted


Apparently, we are “Rethinking” IRs already. By most accounts, IR have not fulfilled the promise they offered in the late 1990s and early 2000s. What started as a possible disruption to the vendor controlled scholarly publishing system, has become disrupted. IR’s are experiencing an “existential crisis (Poynder, 2016, p. 4)” and early advocates are disenchanted (Van de Velde, 2016; Tay, 2016; Poynder, 2016).

I spoke with Salwa Ismail, Department Head, Library Information Technology, Georgetown University Library about the issues surrounding Institutional Repositories (S. Ismail, personal communication, November 19, 2018). She participated in the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) Roundtable in 2017. I asked her first about the technical issues that might be making IRs less promising than they appeared to be at first. Technical issues like a “mishmash of formats” and “outdated formats” (Van de Velde, 2016) means they lack interoperability and can be less desirable than commercially run systems (Tay, 2016). Is this why, according to Lynch, “most IRs remain half empty (Poynder, 2016, p. 3).” For Ismail, the technical issues, though real, are not the main limitation. Lynch (in Poynder, p. 14) agrees; “a lot of the problem here isn’t technical.”

For Ismail, the main issue in the US is a lack of open access culture. She notices that European faculty come to the library and ask where and how to deposit their research output/papers but that after a few months, they fall in with the US culture and stop asking. Compliance is high in Europe, it is tied to evaluations and is enforced (CNI, 2017, p. 5). Van de Velde notes the lack of a culture that supports IRs. There is, he says, a “lack of enthusiasm, there is no grassroots support. Scholars submit papers to an IR because they have to, not because they want to (Van de Velde, 2016).” CNI found that “without continual marketing, it is hard to sustain faculty interest in depositing their materials in the repository (p. 80.” Ismail pointed to the requirements of the publishing industry (embargoes, publisher mandates) as a cause of the lack of an open access culture in the US. Publisher policies often mean that even when papers are added to an IR, they remain locked behind the logins and paywalls of universities (Poynder, 2016, p. 3).

So if IRs are not disrupting scholarly publishing, what is happening with IRs? Many argue that it is time to rethink the IR; to disrupt the path and forge a new direction. “It’s definitely time for a re-think about the real prospects and best approaches and roles (Lynch in Poynder, 2016, p. 13).  And rethinking the purpose is what is happening with IRs. “Libraries are still debating whether a repository should be focused on discovery, access, and/or preservation (CNI, 2017, p. 7).” Lynch says we have “conflated the needs and purposes of IRs (Poynder, 2016, p. 14). IRs don’t have a measure of success because they suffer from a “lack of clarity” about their purpose (CNI, 2017, p. 9). In fact, they have not been that successful. CNI found that librarians that worked with publishers to automate adding papers to the IR – that achieved a 2/3 rate of capture of faculty output (CNI, 2017, p. 9). I think that is still a disappointing number! But it shows that one new direction is collaboration with vendors and institutional partners. Another is helping to meet institutional goals (CNI, 2016, p. 8). Another new focus is capturing student created content (CNI, 2017, p. 9; S. Ismail, personal communication, 2018).

There is, Ismail concludes, nothing else that “captures the scholarly and intellectual output of a university – that makes them important.” We are putting, she says, a great deal of trust in vendors and the government to continue to make scholarly output available. Universities must stand up and take action to capture the output (S. Ismail, personal communication, 2018).


Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) (May 2017). Rethinking institutional repository strategies. Report of a CNI Executive Roundtable Held April 2 & 3, 2017. Retrieved from

Poynder, R. (2016, September, 22) Q&A with CNI’s Clifford Lynch: Time to re-think the institutional repository?

Tay, A. (2016, August 11). Are institutional repositories a dead end? [blog post]. Retrieved from

Van de Velde, E. F. (2016, July 24). Let IR RIP [blog post]. Retrieved from



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