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academic libraries, Information Literacy, Institutional Repositories, Open Access

5 reasons why I can’t find Open Access publications

by Louise Morrison (@ljmorr)

With the publication of the Finch Report, Open Access and Institutional Repositories are hot topics at the moment. So it seems like an opportune moment to bring up an issue that’s been bothering me for a while.

Why is it so hard to find Open Access publications?

I’m not talking about the problem of research being behind paywalls (that’s another issue) but about the practical difficulties of accessing the freely available content currently available via Institutional Repositories.

I used to work as part of an Institutional Repository team in an academic library and I’m very enthusiastic about the potential of Open Access resources. But when I left the cosy world of academia for a research job outside its hallowed walls, the problems of getting my hands on Open Access papers became rapidly clear to me.

I was quite disappointed at how difficult it was to retrieve the publications I used to enthusiastically catalogue in my Institutional Repository work. And it got me thinking that if I am struggling to find these publications (even with my insider library and Institutional Repository knowledge) surely I can’t be the only one.

So, based on my experience as both an organiser and user of Open Access publications, here are the 5 main reasons why I think Open Access articles can be hard to find.

1)   Google can’t find all Institutional Repository content

In terms of finding Open Access publications, Google alone is not a perfect solution. In a recent article by Arlitsch and O’Brien (2012), the authors discuss the issue of Institutional Repository content being ‘invisible’ to Google Scholar. They believe the problem lies with Institutional Repositories that index content using Dublin Core rather than Google Scholar approved metadata schemes. I don’t how many Institutional Repositories this issue affects and I’m sure staff are taking steps to address these issues. But it is worrying to think that potentially valuable research may be hidden from the users who could benefit from it.

2)   Not all subjects have a subject repository

If users can’t be sure that a Google search will retrieve all relevant publications, then another means of accessing Institutional Repository content is via subject repositories. These bring together Open Access publications from multiple institutions on a given subject and allow users to search across their content. The more well-known subject repositories like PubMed and Arxiv, provide an easily searchable means of accessing publications in medical and scientific disciplines.

However, users looking for publications in other subject areas are less well provided for. Although there seem to be some smaller projects aggregating content for arts, humanities and business subject areas, I am not aware of any of a similar scale to PubMed and Arxiv.

3)   Institutional Repository search tools are problematic

Another means of accessing Institutional Repository content is via repository search tools. These harvest records from multiple Institutional Repositories, allowing users to retrieve publications from many institutions via one searchable interface. In theory, these provide a useful means of accessing articles potentially not retrieved via Google Scholar.

However, I have yet to find a search tool that fully meets my Open Access search needs. Firstly, coverage varies between search tools with some focused only on UK Institutional Repositories, while others claim global coverage. As the methods of harvesting records differ though, even those with global coverage may miss some of the records covered by UK-only tools.

Also I can’t help but notice that the some of the main ones I’ve tried (OAIster, Mimas) seem a bit, well, librariany. I get the impression they’ve been designed around the existing structure of Institutional Repositories and library catalogues, rather than around how everyday users would actually want to access the content. In both of these search tools, for example, the format of items takes a very prominent place.

  • When I perform a simple search in OAIster I am prompted to refine my search using a confusing list of item types including ‘downloadable archival material’ and ‘computer file’. The option to refine by format comes before the option to refine by date, a much more useful method.
  • Mimas provides a similarly confusing list of 18 document types including such terms as ‘conference object’, ‘text’ and ‘art object’, despite offering no option to search by date.

I understand that format is a useful means of organising content in Institutional Repositories and a key element of library cataloguing, but I don’t think it’s the way that most people would want to search for publications.

When you work in the library / information world it’s easy to get caught up in the tools and jargon of our trade. But it’s important to remember that those outside of this community are not necessarily familiar with our ways! If these search tools are really intended to be a viable means of accessing Institutional Repository content, I think more thought needs to be given to the intended end-users of such content and their information needs.

4)   How many people have heard of Institutional Repositories?

Even if all the issues with subject repositories and search tools were resolved, I still think a key issue would be making users know that they exist! Hard as it might be for those in the Open Access community to hear, many people who could really benefit from using Institutional Repository content will not know or care what an Institutional Repository is. So I think it’s a stretch to imagine that they would seek out and use the various search tools available to them.

5) And who has the time to use all these search methods?

Not me, anyway! When I’m carrying out research in my job I have limited time to spend on each individual search task. So my chosen search methods come down to a cost / benefit analysis of likely gains. At present, in lieu of a useful subject repository for my subject area, my primary search method is Google Scholar. While I know I may be missing some hidden content, I find it is currently the most time-effective means of finding a broad range of Open Access publications. It does concern me that I may be missing some useful items though.

The future….

As the availability of Open Access publications increases, I’m don’t think it’s enough to just archive papers in Institutional Repositories and assume people will find them. I’m not sure if the answer lies in ensuring better visibility in Google, improving subject repository provision, educating users or maybe a combination of all three.

To me, the primary goal of Open Access is to allow people who would not otherwise be able to access academic research to do so. But it sometimes feels like focus has shifted from this primary goal to what I’d call the side benefits of Open Access: increased citation rates for authors and prestige for universities.

It is an exciting time for the Open Access movement with the whole academic publishing landscape in flux. I know the exact future role of Institutional Repositories in this ecosystem is uncertain but I hope they will continue to play an important role. Institutional Repositories don’t operate in academic isolation though so I think maybe more thought needs to be given to connecting with users outside of libraries and academia as these are surely the people who could benefit most from their content.


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CILIP Scotland special interest group. Find out how developments in Multimedia, Information and Technology are impacting on the library sector.


13 thoughts on “5 reasons why I can’t find Open Access publications

  1. Hello,

    This is usefully tips information..

    Posted by actionscript 3 developer | August 7, 2012, 1:31 pm
  2. At 3) I miss Bielefeld Academic Search Engine (BASE), that makes a really good job, but I suppose you will find it just more “librariany” than OAIster …

    Posted by jplie | August 7, 2012, 1:47 pm
  3. I found exactly the same problem! It was so frustrating! I also wish there was more options for the arts and humanities as I seem to rely on Google Scholar too.

    Posted by creativecloudfix | August 14, 2012, 3:31 pm
  4. JURN itself only indexes open access journals, and repositories are excluded from the index. However, JURN does have an experimental world repository search tool built in Jan 2012:

    Posted by David Haden | August 19, 2012, 8:16 am
  5. Have a similar opinion as you ( and that’s why I started CORE ( I can’t see people to benefit from Open Access unless a robust technical infrastructure is in place.

    Posted by Petr Knoth | August 29, 2012, 5:31 pm
    • Also one of the reasons why OAISter and other institutional repository search tools won’t find what you are looking for is because they are harvesting and indexing only metadata and not full-texts. This is the main difference of CORE.

      Posted by Petr Knoth | August 29, 2012, 5:35 pm
  6. You might be interested in this article that I and my co-authors wrote a couple of years ago about a small study we did in which we investigated the perceptions and experiences of some institutional repository end-users:

    Click to access 21.full.pdf

    Posted by Beth St. Jean | September 12, 2012, 8:34 pm
  7. I’m pleased to say that JURN now also indexes selected full-text repositories, and has also widened its scope beyond the arts and humanities.

    Posted by David Haden | March 19, 2014, 2:59 am


  1. Pingback: MmITS Survey – the results are in « MmITS Blog - November 27, 2012

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