Digital repositorian’s vision sets new standards for open access in the Gulf region

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View of the sea from KAUST’s library

By Michelle Ponto, Frontiers science writer

The Open Access movement is becoming a standard for many universities around the world.  But just a few years ago, the concept of an open-access repository was an innovative venture in the Gulf region. Digital Repository Specialist Mohamed Ba-Essa and his team at King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) took on the challenge and were pioneers in creating the University’s open-access repository along with the policies and the procedures that have made it successful.

“We were the first University in the Middle East. There was one university in Algeria who adapted the open-access policy one day before us – so they were technically the first in the entire MENA region, but we are proud to say we were the first in the Middle East,” said Ba-Essa.

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KAUST’s Digital Repository Specialist Mohamed Ba-Essa

KAUST’s open-access policy officially launched June 30, 2014 and has since helped increase the number of downloads and views of the published research conducted at the university. In addition, it has helped to promote the university beyond the region and build its reputation.   Already, many MENA universities have been in contact with the KAUST digital repository team, asking for advice on how to set up an open-access policy in their institutions (see implementing an open-access repository). In the interview below, Ba-Essa shares how the team’s vision has set new standards in open-access policy and why the procedures they developed made it successful.

How did the KAUST open-access policy come about? 

Ba-Essa: Let me start from the early days.  We launched KAUST’s institutional repository in 2012, but before that we spent almost a year testing a prototype, connecting with faculty and trying to understand the communication needed to facilitate with the scholarly publishers.

Three months after the launch in 2012, we had the first policy associated with the repository. This was the Dissertation Policy, which is a mandated policy that every KAUST thesis or dissertation must be submitted to the repository and is subject to a maximum one-year embargo period to protect their research. Additional embargo periods are allowed, but need the approval of their advisors.  That was our first policy.

What was the next step?

Ba-Essa: We wanted to have more than dissertations in the repository. We wanted research articles, and to do this, we had to get the University to support open-access policy.  We met with the different faculties, attended meetings beginning in early 2013 and presented our case before the Vice President of Academic Affairs Prof. Jim Calvin. He  advised us to establish an open access committee who would be responsible for establishing the policy and the procedures to accompany this policy. This committee consisted of faculty (a member from each of the three academic divisions at KAUST), a team from the library, and later a few members from the legal department and the policy office joined the committee.  It took us about 18 months to establish the policy and the procedures.

In June 2014, championed by KAUST’s library director Molly Tamarkin and the strong support of Jim Calvin (VP of Academic Affairs) and Suzana Nunes , Sahraoui Chaieb  and David Ketcheson who were the faculty representatives, the idea became KAUST’s official open-access mandated policy.

How comprehensive is the open-access repository now?

Ba-Essa: Our open-access policy covers articles and conference papers published by KAUST authors and states that the library will be responsible for implementing this policy.  It will be evaluated in 2017 to see if we need to change any of the procedures.

At the moment, I would say the repository is more comprehensive than Scopus or Web of Science or Google Scholar in terms of KAUST related research articles. This is because we took the APIs from these and many other publishers, and now we are notified whenever something is published from KAUST authors.

We took a proactive approach.  We didn’t want to wait for the authors to send us their publications. Instead, my colleague Daryl Grenz developed a mechanism that sends us a  notification when papers by KAUST authors are published. We contact the authors and ask them to send us their manuscript.  The open-access policy only covers publications after 2014, however we decided to capture the metadata for the articles that were published before then.  You might find some articles published after 2014 with only metadata, but that is because we are waiting for the manuscript from the researcher.

What were your objectives when launching the open-access repository?

Ba-Essa: When we established the repository, we had three objectives: To increase the dissemination and the impact of KAUST research, to create a home for KAUST articles, and to preserve the articles. Even if the papers are published in journals there is no guarantee they will always be available there.

How do faculty and researchers feel about KAUST’s open-access policy?

Ba-Essa: I think in general the researchers are supportive, but it depends on how universities implement it. There are numerous approaches. One approach is asking the researchers to check their own copyrights and to comply with the journals, etc. This would most likely lower the compliance of your policies.

The approach we have taken here at KAUST is proactive in that we do a fair amount of work for the researchers. We check the copyright, we comply with the embargo period if there is one, we comply with the journal restrictions if there are any – such as if a journal does not allow to have an article freely available on the internet, we may be able to have it on our intranet.  We have taken the burden from the faculty and the researchers.  Because of this, our level of support and compliance to our policy is high.

How do the publishers feel about the open-access policy?

Ba-Essa: So far we haven’t gotten any objections and we try to comply with each journal’s policy as much as we can. Right now more than 70 percent of the journals will let us use the author’s manuscript after an embargo period.  Other publishers, like open-access publishers such as Frontiers and PloS One, are fine with us using the publisher’s versions.

We also find that KAUST authors are publishing under CC (Creative Common License), which allows us to use the published version of their work. Either they have paid for it as a Gold Open Access or they have some agreement with the publisher.

Where do you see Open Access going in the future?

Ba-Essa: As you can see from the Directory of Open Access Repositories (OpenDOAR), the number of journals is growing tremendously. Within our region, we were a pioneer in this, but in the last two years we have been receiving several inquiries from universities around the Gulf on how we can work together or share with them our experience in implementing their own open-access repository.  I can see that from these inquiries, the level of awareness has been raised and hopefully we will have more open-access policies and repositories, which would be helpful in advancing scholarly communication.

Having all publishers become open access and having all libraries have an open-access repository would be great.  I realized the importance of open access when I was doing a Masters Program with a university in the UK in 2013.  It was in a discipline we didn’t have at KAUST so there were no resources for it here.  I started looking for resources and found it was difficult to find articles that were open access, and others would let me read the abstract, but the article was hidden behind a pay-wall.

I realized then that this should go away and hopefully one day we can advance scholarly communication without this pay-wall.  How this would happen? I can’t say.  It’s foggy now, but I know one day it will come. 

How does ORCID play a role in the overall goal of the policy?

Ba-Essa: With the support from the library director, KAUST became an ORCID premium member in September 2014 and we integrated our repository through ORCID’s API. But we also knew that ORCID would add some added value to the researcher which would make the repository more than a storage space.  ORCID helped us develop each researcher’s profile and it helped us find their published works.

There were two phases to the project. In phase 1, we launched an email campaign asking each faculty member to create their ORCID through the tools we had developed. Once they created their ID through the tools, it granted writing permission to the repository.  We got more than 85 percent of the faculty registered, and then we looked at the next big groups, such as the researchers, and did the same process with them and the postdocs.  This year our goal is to target the students.

The second phase was around theses and dissertations.  We believed that theses and dissertations are good research outputs. Students could create their ORCIDs and we could integrate these to their profiles. So when they submit their thesis, it is added to the profiles along with their advisors.

How did you transform the repository into something more?

Ba-Essa: Even though we could identify their work, and add it to the repository with a link to their author profile, we still wanted to do more to make the open-access repository a valuable service for our users.  The solution was to incorporate metric tools, such as Altmetics.

We subscribed to PlumX’s PlumAnalytics and we created a profile for each faculty member that links their works with their ORCID.  This is helping give the faculty an indication of how their work has been received within the academic community.  We launched that in December 2015 after working with PlumX for over a year, and it has been so successful that some of the remaining faculty or researchers have approached us asking why they don’t have a PlumX profile. We tell them we need them to create their ORCID profile. Once they do this, we add them.

We really tried to connect all the pieces to together – from having an open access repository, to creating an ORCID profile that helps maintain the repository, to adding PlumX that connects via the scientists ORCID profile and provides metrics for them.

What are the visitor demographics of the KAUST open-access repository?

Ba-Essa: It is people from everywhere. We have a decent number of visitors from the US, the UK, Europe, and all over the world – as well as a number of users from the campus and the Gulf region.

Since the launch we have had good growth in terms of views and downloads from the repository. We also integrated the repository with Google, Google Scholar and library catalogues.  More than 70 percent of the visitors to the repository come from Google search and other outside sources.  Without the repository collecting our articles and making them accessible, these visitors may never have found our research.

How do you hope to spread Open Access in the region?

Ba-Essa: This really started by the University’s founding library reference manager Richard Johansson. He organized the first discussion panel as part of Special Libraries Association-Arabian Gulf Chapter 2012.  Since then, we have activities in every conference supporting scholarly communication in general. We are also participating in the first American Library Association Conference which is hosted and supported by the Sharjah International Book Fair.

I hope we will have some kind of community within the Gulf region supporting open access. The Special Libraries Association has an Arabian Gulf Chapter and there is a conference coming up in April 2016. This year we have several events with them, including a workshop on establishing an open-access repository. We will also have a discussion panel that I will be moderating.

Now that we have launched our open-access repository and have some best practices, we are trying to work within the region to promote open access and work with our peers to become a committee that can work together.

 

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