Spreading coronavirus research

As the world’s virologists race for answers to COVID-19, the Carolina Digital Repository makes the research of the University’s top coronavirus experts openly accessible online.

Carolina Digital Repository website

Working remotely from their home offices, the University’s librarians are helping the world’s virologists fight coronavirus by making faculty research more accessible online through the Carolina Digital Repository.

Launched in 2009 to digitally curate specialty collections, the repository was enhanced in 2016 to be able to share Carolina faculty members’ scholarly writing under the University’s Open Access Policy. It is now is home to nearly 3,000 articles and more than 15,000 dissertations, theses and other scholarly work.

Anyone in the world can access the articles for free, allowing researchers to connect and collaborate on solving a common problem, like coronavirus.

“I’m glad the University invested in this resource when they did,” said Anne Gilliland, the library’s scholarly communications officer. “It’s not like someone said in 2016, ‘This will be really useful if we have a pandemic one day.’”

But, as the world is discovering, being prepared for the worst is helpful when a pandemic strikes.

Battle for access

The ability to share Carolina’s pandemic-related research with the world so quickly is the latest result of the University’s ongoing efforts to wrest control of its researchers’ work away from the subscription scholarly journals who traditionally hold exclusive publishing rights.

Back in 2005, the faculty approved a resolution that “to the extent permitted by law, UNC-CH faculty are the owners of their research and should retain ownership or use other means to foster open access publication wherever possible.”

In 2016, that philosophy got some teeth when the University’s Open Access Policy went into effect, giving the University “a nonexclusive, noncommercial, irrevocable, worldwide license” to make scholarly articles by faculty members accessible to all.

Putting coronavirus first

The coronavirus example shows how valuable a reliable open access source can be for researchers.

During the pandemic, “Researchers have identified and shared hundreds of viral genome sequences. More than 200 clinical trials have been launched, bringing together hospitals and laboratories around the globe,” according to an April 1 New York Times article.

After seeing a Bloomberg News article about the work of coronavirus expert and Carolina faculty member Ralph Baric, she immediately focused the repository’s efforts on his coronavirus research.

After seeing a Bloomberg News article about the work of coronavirus expert and Carolina faculty member Ralph Baric, Rebekah Kati immediately focused the repository’s efforts on his coronavirus research.

In March, Rebekah Kati, institutional repository librarian, did her part to spread coronavirus research. After seeing a Bloomberg News article about the work of coronavirus expert and Carolina faculty member Ralph Baric, she immediately focused the repository’s efforts on his coronavirus research. Now a search of the repository yields 109 results related to coronavirus and 90 articles with references to Baric.

After finding a list of Baric’s articles on his online CV, Kati had to decide which were eligible to post to the repository. “Eligible” articles, Gilliland explained, are those authored by Carolina faculty after the University’s Open Access Policy went into effect in 2016 and any previous articles no longer exclusive to the original publisher.

Kati also contacted Baric by email with her plans. “He replied right away and was very positive,” Kati said. Right away, she found 63 eligible articles by Baric, 30 of them related to coronavirus. All of them, and more, are now available online.

Kati expanded her search to include articles by other epidemiologists at Carolina, including Gillings School of Global Public Health faculty members Lisa Gralinski, Rachel Graham and Timothy Sheahan. A new compilation of COVID-19 researchers recently released by the School of Medicine is Kati’s next to-do list.

Downloads in Jeopardy

Nearly a year ago, the repository’s online platform was upgraded just in time for its biggest spike in usage. This time the cause wasn’t a pandemic but a game show. The day before the switch to the new software, the popular game show Jeopardy aired the episode in which School of Information and Library Science graduate Emma Boettcher (MSIS ’16) defeated a contestant with a 32-game winning streak.

Why the sudden interest in — and thousands of downloads from — the Carolina Digital Repository? As longtime Jeopardy host Alex Trebek might say, “The answer is Predicting the Difficulty of Trivia Questions Using Text Features.”

And the question is “What was the title of Boettcher’s 2016 master’s thesis analyzing nearly 22,000 different Jeopardy clues?”

A reliable source

Last year, the University Libraries launched the Sustainable Scholarship initiative to call attention to the problem of valuable research locked behind the increasingly expensive paywalls of online journals. Faculty members voted “to work with the University Libraries to support open access, affordability and transparency in scholarly publishing.”

As part of the initiative, the University did not renew a contract with academic publishing giant Elsevier, whose most recent one-year package offer was $2.6 million for nearly 2,000 journals. The much smaller list of Elsevier publications, released by University Libraries on April 8, was based on the results of a campus survey about researchers’ use of Elsevier titles, data about actual use, costs and other factors.

Sometimes, like during the current pandemic, these subscription journals will lower their paywall, temporarily, Gilliland said.

“A lot of publishers right now are making this research available,” Gilliland said. “But ours will still be in force beyond the current crisis. We’ll be able to keep that research open.”

Usually the repository’s staff identifies and uploads the content of highly cited and influential authors in a broad range of topics, not just coronavirus.

They also rely on faculty authors to deposit their articles as they publish, something they can do on the Carolina Digital Repository website. The article is available immediately online, but Kati and her team must do the back-end work to make sure it is searchable and properly displayed and categorized.

“Faculty are supportive of the repository in the abstract, but it’s not their highest priority,” Gilliland said.

Gilliland said the library would “need an army of people or software or both” to ensure that all the material produced by Carolina scholars gets uploaded to the repository.

Meanwhile, Kati and a research assistant soldier on, remotely, to keep access to Carolina research open to all.