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Reflections from an intern: research data, open access, and etheses

Earlier this year we welcomed a postgraduate student to the University Library to carry out an Erasmus internship. This guest blog post by Juan Mosquera Ramallo provides a flavour of his time spent working with research data, open access publications and e-theses:

A whole summer has passed after my two-month internship at St Andrews’ University Library and I think the time has come to reflect on what this experience has taught me. As a mature Postgraduate student (I am in my forties) at the Erasmus Mundus Masters programme ‘Crossways in Cultural Narratives’, supervised by the Modern Languages Department, I believed that St Andrews’ University Library was an interesting place to learn about academic information and resources. Working in the library is an excellent way to learn about the problems and issues of organizing, cataloguing and disseminating those data. I learned a lot during these two months about these issues but if there is a word which has been emphasized through all the tasks I had to perform there is this (and I write it in capital letters): ACCESSIBILITY. I was amazed at how all the staff in the library are committed not only to preserving and storing knowledge, but also to finding new ways to make that knowledge easily and freely accessible. All this was done in accordance to the policy shift towards Open Access (OA) which is being promoted by the British government in an effort to make all new knowledge available to the general public as soon as possible. In a certain way, the main lesson I have learnt is to avoid becoming “selfish” with the knowledge I will produce (in my hypothetical future academic career), but trying to spread it as much as I can using all the tools at my disposal.

During my internship, all the different tasks I was assigned were related to OA policy; therefore I will describe how my performance was contributing to the development of OA.


1.    As the Open Access policy involves not just free access to articles that are the result of researches funded by public bodies, but also free access to the data used in these researches, it is important to check whether this access is actually free or not. Therefore, part of my task in collaboration with the Head of Research Data and Information Service was to introduce myself into the online journals to examine the articles produced by researchers from the University of St Andrews.  Though the articles were freely available on these websites, it was necessary to observe whether the relevant data used in the research were available as well. This meant verifying whether or not the supplementary information related to the articles included figures, diagrams, statistics, materials, etc. which constituted both the primary data from which the research was based, and the results which were the product of the specific research addressed in the article. This supplementary information could be included as an appendix to the article itself in the form of a file which contained all this data information, as a link to another website where this data information was stored, or in the form of a statement within the article explaining how to access this information. This verification was not only a matter of seeing whether this information was freely accessible or not, but also a matter of how easy it was to reach, if the accessibility was clear and straightforward.

2.    This is a moment of transition in the implementation of the Open Access policy, so the different institutions linked to research supported by public funding are still organizing their own protocols and ways to access research articles. As a result of this policy, an increasing number of educational institutions and public bodies are setting up repositories as a way to make the research outcomes funded with public resources freely accessible; this is concomitant with, rather than a replacement of the traditional publishing through academic journals. My task was to examine different online repositories established by diverse institutions (mainly universities) and to see how these repositories were organized in terms of the accessibility of articles and data, the different identifiers used to classify the stored items and the available links to additional information. In this way it would be easier to identify the strengths and weaknesses of repositories regarding the successful application of the Open Access policy and to take this into account in the re-design of the University of St Andrews’ repository.

3.    Under the supervision of the Head of Metadata and Content Acquisition, I had the opportunity to work with the theses produced at University of St Andrews that, in accordance with the University Postgraduate Code of Practice, have to be deposited in electronic format.  This accessibility implies not only the possibility of having printed theses at the public’s disposal but also the inclusion of the theses in the St Andrews’ repository where everybody can read them in a digital version, facilitating the  diffusion of knowledge originating from the University’s PhD research. Since 2007, the University of St Andrews’ PhD theses have been produced both in paper and digitized versions. Due to the huge number of pre-2007 PhD theses which are still only in paper versions, these theses, in collaboration with the British Library’s EThOS service, are digitized on request of the individuals who want to access them. My task involved the inclusion of these digitized versions in the University’s repository after downloading the theses files from the Ethos database. At the same time, it is necessary to create metadata records in the repository that provide information about the content of the diverse theses and allow an easier identification and labelling of the topics addressed in them. The inclusion of this metadata in the interface of the University’s library was an essential part of my work as well.

4.    The RCUK (Research Councils UK) is a strategic partnership of the UK’s seven Research Councils and invests millions of pounds every year in research. Different institutions carrying out research receive funding from the RCUK in order to make the result of their works available through the application of the Open Access policy, which asks for Open Access immediately at the time of the on-line publication when payment is made to a publisher. Due to the funding support, the RCUK monitors how institutions use this money and asks from them evidence to observe how the Open Access policy is working. St Andrews University Library manages the grant assigned by the RCUK and checks the compliance of all the requirements for the Open Access documents published. My task was the compilation in a standard spreadsheet of the relevant data asked by the RCUK so that it can serve as evidence of the implementation of the Open Access policy and of the rational use of the grant. Eventually this data will be made public so that the whole University sector and UK funding bodies will see what is being spent (and the compliance rates) from as many institutions as possible.

In conclusion, my work placement was a very interesting experience which made me reflect on the relationship between researching, publishing and accessibility, and how institutions like university libraries play a relevant role in these activities. In a certain way, I have changed my mind: prior to this experience, the research ended for me at the moment the paper with the results were written; now I consider that the researcher has to work to make that paper visible and accessible, not just for professional reasons, but also to share this new knowledge with others. Researchers working at universities have an ally in the libraries that can help them to do this. I really enjoyed my internship there and I would like to thank the library staff who helped me during my whole stay, being patient with me and introducing me to a whole new area linked to the dissemination of new knowledge. Their professionalism and kindness created a friendly atmosphere which contributed to a very pleasant and stimulating experience, and to change my mind regarding university libraries: there is so much happening behind those quiet rooms!

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