Fighting the good fight for open access
Wendy Walker, Associate Professor and Digital Initiatives Librarian at the University of Montana (UM), is very clear on her position in the scholarly communication community. “I’m an open access advocate,” she says, “and open science is a natural part of that.” Walker has aligned the University of Montana repository, ScholarWorks, with the institution’s larger mission and offers solutions to many of the university’s needs around publishing science openly. Her commitment to open science has led to publishing data sets, oral histories, dissertations, grant-related research, and even a special collection from the Department of Geosciences that propelled a 40-year-old set of seismic data from dusty file cabinets to open digital files.
“Open access (OA) is an ongoing challenge, and at times it’s difficult. There exists a long road of OA advocacy. Professionally, it has pushed me to learn and to question,” Walker says. Her background was in digital collections, and she learned about institutional repositories (IRs) on the job. In the process, she recounts, she learned to wrangle OA mechanics, publishers, and faculty concerns. “It’s easy to say ‘everything OA is good,’ but it is a great challenge in this job to follow through on that. It can be a struggle, but I really enjoy that it constantly makes me challenge my assumptions about OA. When it’s hard to keep my spirits up, I go back to the value of OA and know the fight is worth it!”
Stories from grateful users of ScholarWorks help fuel her drive. She has received comments from a pastor who was doing research for his Sunday service, an amateur archeology enthusiast, students and others. Walker says this feedback makes her aware of people around the world reading something they never would’ve found if it hadn’t been freely available in ScholarWorks. She emphasizes that this is vetted scholarship, curated by the library, which provides different value than material found in an unknown context on the internet.
Partnering with faculty to make data sets open
As research grants have started requiring that any resulting data be openly available, Walker has seen the University of Montana place a higher value on open science. In her role as Digital Initiatives Librarian, she can offer ScholarWorks as a solution to this compliance issue. Recently she has worked with many faculty members to publish their data, including several UM professors who linked their article to a data set from the Montana Climate Office.
“I’m pleased to see the recognition of data sets as part of the academic record. I see providing access to these as key to reproducibility and transparency in an effort to promote verifiable, reproducible scientific research,” Walker says. “Every time someone contacts me with one of these requests, I’m thrilled. The faculty advisor for a recently graduated student contacted me to ask if I could link her former student’s newest data set to his dissertation, already published in ScholarWorks. She was very happy with my ‘yes!’ answer.” The more than 11,000 electronic theses and dissertations in the repository are among its most downloaded content. Since the repository’s launch in September 2013, there have been more than 1,630,000 downloads.
Special collections of open science research
One of the first large collections that Walker and her team published in ScholarWorks was the Flathead Lake Seismic Survey, a decades-old data set with images, audio, text, and seismic files. In “Considerations and Challenges for Describing Historical Research Data: A Case Study,” she and co-author Teressa M. Keenan describe how “creating metadata for data sets can be challenging, but it is crucial for discovery, access, re-use, reproducibility, and preservation.” They offer words of encouragement: “Making historical data sets available to current researchers, with quality metadata, is worthwhile. Even with imperfect metadata, as of early November 2017 the seismic survey data files had been downloaded collectively nearly 3,300 times.” (By fall 2019, that number had increased to 4,695.) This collection provides a unique opportunity for current and future researchers because so many new methods of processing the data have been developed in the intervening years—yet another critical benefit of publishing science openly. The team was even contacted by an Italian researcher who wanted to use the .wav files of seismic data and play them as “music”—an example of open science truly promoting innovation.
Walker credits geoscientist Bob Lankston with helping to organize a challenging variety of file types, including bathymetry (measurements of water depth), survey maps, seismic sections, and salvaged audio recordings. They decided on a creative use of the “book gallery” publishing format in their repository, ScholarWorks. They linked varied files to each data set, which is posted as a separate “book” and contains a unique record. Walker also used the repository’s flexible structure to publish other scientific materials with widely divergent needs, yet still provide the most searchable, well organized data. For example, an “event gallery” structure showcases the Clark Fork Symposium Archives, while Lithics in the West is an often-downloaded OA monograph published in partnership with the University Press.
Walker has also been pleased to partner with Hannah Soukup, Archives Specialist, on an extensive collection of more than 2,000 oral history interviews detailing various aspects of Montana history, from forestry to feminism. She notes that it can be tricky to make archival content open, as it is no mean feat to get the necessary permissions for decades-old materials. It often involves convincing the owners of these documents of the value of open access publishing, something that Soukup excels at doing. Wendy also admires Soukup’s dedication to making this material as open as possible, including offering text transcriptions of the audio files, which makes them accessible to readers with different needs. As Walker says, “We saw the value of publishing archival material from the get-go. We had a digitization program in place, but were looking for a more robust search function. We are both committed to meeting accessibility standards and know it is an iterative process, as it takes a great deal of time.”