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The Digital Scholars Commons

The acceptance of open sharing of academic research is a growing trend in higher education. This has not been the norm as scholarly work is traditionally published through prestigious, but costly, journal options that make it more challenging for students and other researchers to find and use the information needed to inform their own work.

As a part of the larger open educational resources movement [PDF], digital access to academic publications is growing through large databases and other holdings that provide online access to current and archived research reports. Beyond the factors of convenience often associated with online access to courses and learning materials, why are open and digital formats important for academic research?

  • Preservation: Digital versions of traditional print publications, such as journals and books, provide a range of helpful functions from establishing permanent URLs for each item and metadata for easier identification and retrieval in the search process, to creating archives of materials that will stand the test of time and continue to be available for future researchers.
  • Open Access: Have you ever searched for a specific article finding that only the abstract was available without a fee or subscription? Digital formats allow more documents to be provided and accessed in an open environment – free to both view and contribute to via an Internet connection. From a student perspective, digital documents that made available in open access venues are easier to find and use in coursework and research. From an institutional and funding perspective, there is a call for academic research, especially that which is funded through federal grant programs (with taxpayer support) to be openly available to the public
  • Outreach: Digital access also encourages collaboration and extends the reach of an individual researcher's work by making it available to a larger, and potentially wider, audience. From a faculty member or other academic researcher's perspective, contributing scholarly work to an open, digital collection increases awareness of their work. This does not mean a forfeiture of intellectual property rights, however, as there are new ways to license open content, such as those made available through Creative Commons.

Examples and Resources


What can you expect to find when searching for academic research in open, digital formats? Journal articles and books, theses and dissertations, reports and presentations, and other related documents, are all common to most academic research databases. You'll find these in open access collections supported by specialized search platforms, institutional initiatives, and in different types of repositories.

Digital Access Platforms

Digital Commons, an open-access institutional repository platform offered through Berkeley Electronic Press, makes the University of South Carolina's (USC) institutional repository available to the public online. USC's commons boasts over 99,000 full-text downloads, and features both "Top 10 Downloads" and "Recent Additions" on the home page.

The University of South Florida's (USF) Scholars Commons, also using the Digital Commons platform, "is a virtual showcase for USF's research and creative energies. Members of the USF academic community are encouraged to contribute any completed scholarship for long-term preservation and worldwide electronic accessibility." This site allows you to look for articles and other publications with typical search fields, such as author, title, and date, as well as for peer-reviewed items specifically.

The Scholarly Commons site from The University of Nevada, Las Vegas Law School similarly provides access to academic work specifically related to law and legal students. Beyond search capabilities, this site also features a "Paper of the Day" and links to faculty profiles.

Institutional Efforts and Initiatives

The University of Hawaii at Manoa's (UHM) open access initiative includes the Scholarly Communication system, encouraging faculty members to engage in discussion about open publishing and to contribute their work this way, and ScholarSpace, an open-access repository for the UHM community that is focused on digital preservation and wider distribution of content. Keeping all potential stakeholders in mind, UHM encourages scholars and researchers to use these resources "to create, distribute, use, and preserve their work" while continuing discussions such as those related to required cyberinfrastructure and the role of open access publishing in academic tenure and promotion.

Boston University's (BU) library system coordinates Digital Initiatives and Open Access support. This set of resources includes search options for a variety of materials, such as the libraries' collections, WGBH OpenVault, and dissertations from the National Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations. BU's Digital Common is an open access repository containing full-text documents authored by faculty, students, and staff.

Journals and Repositories

Efforts to aggregate lists of materials that are already provided by others in an open access format are helpful and keep us from having to search for individual sites, posts, and resources on our own. The University of Colorado's (CU) online table of peer-reviewed open access journals is one such resource. CU's library has gathered a helpful list, organized it by category and title, and provided direct links.

The Directory of Open Access Repositories, known as OpenDOAR, "is an authoritative directory of academic open access repositories" providing searchable lists of existing collections. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) also helps to make searching for openly available materials easier by including over 7,000 peer reviewed and editorial quality controlled journals containing over 70,000 full-text articles. 


Challenges and Moving Forward


Institutions providing platforms, initiatives, and collections such as those listed here are not in the mainstream. Finding these hubs of "openness" will continue to pose a challenge for students and researchers seeking access to full-text versions of the research they need to inform their own work. As an online instructor or student, reach out to your school's librarians for more information and assistance. This group of professionals is not only skilled in research and referencing, but also knowledgeable in digital access and online search techniques.

Sustainability of open and digital access is also a challenge moving forward. While these resources are freely available to the reader, there are real costs involved in administering and maintaining the systems that hold the collections. UHM's open access publishing resources further describe some of the current funding methods, which include grants, publication fees, and institutional memberships.

Meanwhile, the momentum for openly sharing scholarly work online continues to grow. How are you currently using these kinds of resources? Consider sharing your tips here, along with additional sites you've found to be helpful along the way.  

January 10th, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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