Brian Lavoie is Research Scientist for OCLC in the USA

An important class of at-risk digital materials is the myriad forms of output generated over the research lifecycle – think of data sets, computer code, online discussions, e-lab notebooks, and so on. Growing recognition of the value of these materials to the scholarly record has led to many efforts to collect and preserve them over the long term. But mitigating risks associated with preserving digital research outputs means setting up stewardship arrangements that are well-adapted to the evolving nature of today’s scholarly record. For that, we need stewardship with a network logic, or conscious coordination.

Traditionally, stewardship of the scholarly record was characterized by the collecting activities of many academic libraries and other institutions, each of whom, within the limits of space and budget, tried to assemble for local use a representative slice or cross-section of a scholarly record that was largely confined to the print monograph and journal literatures. Because libraries were for the most part drawing their collections from the same pool of materials (monographs and journals), sufficient coverage and overlap was attained to secure the ongoing persistence and accessibility of the scholarly record.

The scholarly record is now expanding to include a host of largely digital materials that only a few years ago were not routinely collected and preserved. As digital materials became pervasive, the nature of the scholarly record shifted along at least three dimensions. First, we saw a diminishment of duplication: rather than being physically duplicated across many collections, many research outputs reside in a single repository or online platform. Second, a diversification of outputs is evident, as the scope of the scholarly record now reaches beyond text-based published outcomes to include primary sources, e-prints, methodological tools, complex data visualizations, and other artifacts of the research lifecycle. Third – and a corollary to the previous point – the sheer volume of materials flowing into the scholarly record has significantly increased.

All of this leads to some general observations about today’s scholarly record. First, the scholarly record is now spread over a wide network of diverse custodians who are uniquely positioned to preserve the materials in their care. It is beyond the capacity of any single academic library to collect a “representative slice” of these outputs and hold them in local collections. Second, this highly distributed custodial pattern – with a fairly thin degree of duplication – means that ongoing access to the scholarly record at the local level will depend not just on local collecting and preservation efforts, but on the collective efforts of the broader stewardship network.

My colleague Lorcan Dempsey describes an evolution of library collections from a print logic – “the distribution of print copies to multiple local destinations” to a network logic where “a coordinated mix of local, external, and collaborative services are assembled around user needs.” As the logic of library collections – and by extension, access to the scholarly record – evolves, stewardship models aimed at the long-term preservation of the scholarly record must evolve as well. More specifically, stewardship models must shift from a print logic of autonomous, duplicative local collecting and preservation, to a network logic of coordinated action. Stewardship with a network logic is conscious coordination.

Conscious coordination embodies four principles:

  • System-wide awareness: Local decisions about stewardship are taken with a broader awareness of the system-wide stewardship context – who is collecting what, what commitments have been made elsewhere in terms of stewarding various portions of the scholarly record, and how the local collection fits into the broader system-wide stewardship effort.
  • Explicit commitments: Declarations of stewardship commitments are made regarding portions of the local collection. Institutions acknowledge and undertake to fulfill explicit responsibilities for collecting and preserving certain materials. Fulfilling these responsibilities is seen as a commitment not only to local users, but also to an external stakeholder community.
  • Division of labor: Rather than collecting and preserving some of everything, greater emphasis is placed on specialization. Institutions collect and preserve a circumscribed range of materials, within cooperative arrangements in which different institutions specialize in stewarding different portions of the scholarly record.
  • Reciprocal access: Stewardship strategies built on a greater degree of specialization must be supported by robust resource sharing arrangements that ensure access to all parts of the scholarly record, via mutual assurance that research outputs collected by one institution will be made available throughout the network.

Taken together, these principles frame a stewardship model in which a network of libraries, repositories, platforms, and other organizations with a stake in preserving the scholarly record work together to secure its long-term availability. The model is animated by the notion of conscious coordination, or stewardship with a network logic. And the impetus for shifting to this model is the recognition that autonomous, internally-focused collecting and preservation efforts are inadequate to steward an increasingly digital scholarly record, encompassing high volumes of diverse and technically complex research outputs, and characterized by a highly distributed pattern of custodial responsibility. The level of coordination may be loose or deep, formal or informal, tacit or explicit, but in all cases it is conscious, in the sense that there is a clear recognition that local collecting and preservation efforts are integrated into, and access to the full scholarly record is inextricably tied to, a broader stewardship network.

Emerging classes of digital research outputs are at risk not just because their value might go unrecognized, or through a lack of systematic collecting effort. They are also at risk if long-term stewardship models do not adapt to the evolving nature of the scholarly record itself. Adaptation involves introducing a network logic into stewardship arrangements, through the principles of conscious coordination. Stewardship with a network logic will help ensure the scholarly record in its fullest expression is preserved for and accessible to scholars now and in the future.

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