Repositories and the Open Web

I’ve written before about how I used EPrints as a back end for WordPress, which was a front end for some OERs which are aimed at anyone wanting to learn how to sketch. I didn’t really know where I was going with it, but it worked out OK. I’ve also written about how WordPress can be used for scholarly publishing with the addition of a few plugins. In that post, I showed how I deposited my MA Dissertation into EPrints via RSS from WordPress. I’m going to take a similar approach with the OERs we’ve created for the ChemistryFM project, using the repository as canonical storage and WordPress as a front end for the course. I think that for these reasons, I was asked to provide a brief ‘position paper’ for next week’s JISC CETIS event on repositories and the open web. ((The distinction between the open web and the social web isn’t very clear on the CETIS event page. I think that the open web is not necessarily social and that the social web is not necessarily open. For me, the open web refers to a distributed web built on open source and open standards like HTML, RSS, RDF, OAuth, OpenID. Although the two are converging, Twitter for example is not as good an example as in terms of the open web, but a better example of the social web in terms of its uptake.))

My position is pretty straight forward really. I don’t think it’s worth developing social features for repositories when there is already an abundance of social software available. It’s a waste of time and effort and the repository scene will never be able to trump the features that the social web scene offers and that people increasingly expect to use. The social web scene is largely market driven (people working in profit making companies develop much of the social web software) and without constantly innovating, businesses fail. Repositories, on the whole, are not developed for profit and do not need to innovate for the sake of something new that will drive revenue. That is a good position to be in. Why change it? When repositories start competing for features with social web software, it is the beginning of the end for them.

EPrints offers versioned storage for the preservation of digital objects and a rich amount of data in a number of formats can be harvested and exported from each EPrint. The significance of the software is the exposure of its data to Google, as you will see from looking at the web analytics for any repository.

In thinking about how to join EPrints to the social web, I’ve toyed with the idea of a socialrepo, where WordPress harvests one or more feeds from the repository. With a little design work, WordPress could be the defacto front end for the repository providing all the social features of a mature blogging platform.

We’ve also commissioned a couple of plugins for EPrints that extends the reach both to and from EPrints. The first is a simple widget that can be placed on any web page and provides a way for a member of staff to upload a paper to their EPrints workspace. The second is an XML-RPC plugin that allows you to post a summary of your EPrint to your blog at the end of the deposit process so that the item can be advertised in a place more meaningful to you than an institutional repository and discussed alongside all your other academic blogging.

As I’ve shown with my own dissertation, EPrints can consume RSS feeds and if we want to add social web compatibility to EPrints, why not focus on improving the ingest process so that data can be harvested from the feed to populate the cataloguing fields? And while we’re at it, recall that the social web is rich in multimedia. EPrints could be much improved in how it ingests multimedia and the batch editing functionality that is essential when dealing with hundred of images, for example. Much could be done on the inside of EPrints, but on the outside, EPrints is an excellent example of the open web but a poor example of the social web. But let’s not beat ourselves up about it. The social web thrives on the technologies of the open web. Give it what it needs to thrive and make it easier for users to feed the beast.

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