A bank of knowledge
The University holds a treasure trove of material authored by alumni that is being shared freely across the globe.
By Anders Furze (MJourn 2016)
How do we make knowledge available to everyone? That question is driving the growing “open access” movement in higher education, which seeks to make research available online, for free, to anybody who wants it.
The University of Melbourne has had an open-access repository, known as Minerva Access, since 2001. The work in the database collectively tells a story about the University’s scholarship, says Donna McRostie, Deputy Director of Research and Collections in Scholarly Services.
“It’s a showcase of all the research at the University, and all the student scholarship as well. It really profiles the breadth and depth of our research endeavour,” she says.
McRostie works closely with Jenny McKnight, a research consultant specialising in open access, to help University academics consider making their research available to anyone.
“What I find fascinating is the sheer diversity of our most highly downloaded items,” McKnight says. “If you look at our most popular publications in Minerva at any one time, they span a huge range of areas.”
Much of the database’s traffic comes from developing countries, which McKnight notes plays into ideas of equitable access that underpin the open access movement.
“The vast majority of academic research outputs, globally, are behind paywalls. What that basically means is, if you’re outside a wealthy, often Western university, you don’t have access to peer-reviewed research generally.
“Open access enables people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to peer-reviewed research created at our University to access it for free.”
Among the most popular works accessed in 2019 were a severe thunderstorm climatology, a paper comparing the experiences of physical education teachers in Kenya and Australia, and a journal article on Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. The most popular item of 2019 so far is an edited collection of letters from Aboriginal women in Victoria from 1867 to 1926.
Other highlights from the collection include the first two PhD theses to ever be completed in Australia, as well as the first thesis ever completed at the University of Melbourne (An examination of Teutonic Law, completed as part of a Doctor of Laws in 1893).
Indeed, Minerva houses more than 12,000 theses written by University alumni, as well as other research publications, including articles, book chapters and even creative works. All up, items have been downloaded more than one million times so far this year.
“You’ll see a lot of things that are popular with practitioners,” McKnight says. “You would never go through the top 20 downloads for a month and see a particular discipline dominating. They’re all represented.”
Research suggests that people who work outside of universities rely on open-access databases to gain access to knowledge that would otherwise be unavailable to them. “Practitioners, policymakers, business professionals. Typically, they will do a Google or Google Scholar search. If they can access something free of charge then they’ll use it, but if they can’t they’ll move on to something else. It’s the main way people out there access our content.”
McRostie says the University can’t rely on readers coming to its websites to find articles. Instead, they must be clever about coming up with ways to bring content to readers.
“One of our main aims is to make the content as visible as possible, so users don’t actually have to know where to come. Instead, you can do a search and find this stuff using any mechanism that you choose: Google, Google Scholar, Trove, etc.”
It’s a mammoth logistical undertaking, and staff can’t just click their fingers and make everything freely available. “Permissions must be provided by students and academics, then there are issues such as copyright,” McRostie says.
“When we talk about digitising, that’s the easiest part of the process. But then there’s the contextual metadata to make them discoverable, the online tools to get them out there. We’re challenged to keep up with all of that as well.”
Alongside increasing accessibility, McKnight says the other purpose of the repository is to preserve the work for future generations.
“I have people approach me, often close to retirement, and they want their body of work preserved. They know then that their work will be there and discoverable, even if a journal publisher gets bought out or closes everything up.”
Adds McRostie: “It’s a work in progress, and finite resources limit what we can do. But the opportunities here are huge.”
Minerva by the numbers*
3,976 open access theses
10,817 open access research publications (journal articles, book chapters, reports, etc)
6,116,477 total downloads
1,306,730 total downloads for 2019
Minerva’s top 10 most popular items
66,480 The challenges of teaching physical education: juxtaposing the experiences of physical education teachers in Kenya and Victoria, Micheal N Wanyama
38,490 Letters from Aboriginal women of Victoria, 1867-1926, Edited collection
29,460 Beyond black and white: Aborigines, Asian-Australians and the national imaginary, Peta Stephenson
26,720 The mechanics of tractor-implement performance: theory and worked examples: a textbook for students and engineers, Ross MacMillan
24,260 Constructing nurses’ professional identity, Dr Georgina Anne Parkes Willetts
23,270 A dynamic structural analysis of tress subject to wind loading, Kenneth Ronald James
23,100 In the mood for love: intersections of Hong Kong modernity, Audrey Yue
19,500 An ethical defence of modern zoos, Dr Jennifer Helen Gray
18,390 Dynamics of critical Internet culture (1994-2001), Dr Geert Willem Lovink
16,870 Embedded: the Australian Red Cross in the Second World War, Dr Jonathan A Spear
*2002 – October 2019 | minerva-access.unimelb.edu.au