CLOCKSS is a digital archive for libraries and publishers, enabling the preservation of scholarly work for future generations

The perpetual motion of digital scholarly preservation


Researchers are passionate about contributing to the ever-expanding network of knowledge. So, how can scholars ensure that their work is available for future generations to access and build on?


CLOCKSS is a digital archive for publishers and research libraries. Executive Director, Dr Alicia Wise, suggests that the work of the preservation community is in perpetual motion, and that collaboration between authors, libraries, publishers, and archival services is imperative for passing the knowledge baton to future learners.


Visit their website: CLOCKSS

Image source: Adobe Image Stock / metamorworks



Hello and welcome to ResearchPod! Thank you for listening and joining us today.


In this episode, we look at the work of CLOCKSS – a digital archive for academic publishers and research libraries. Their work is anything but simple, and the responsibility of preserving scholarly knowledge is immense – especially with publishing becoming progressively digital. CLOCKSS, and other digital archives, are in a continual race against obsolescence as they safeguard knowledge for those yet to be born, using technology that will then be outdated.


It’s fair to say most researchers don’t do what they do for the money. Instead, what drives them is their passion for contributing to the scholarly record. This ‘record’ is not a simple sequential chronicle of academic information. Instead, it is an ever-expanding, highly interconnected network of all human knowledge racing outwards in various directions. Scholars build upon the work of those who published before, so that those who follow may do the same. Those tasked with curating such knowledge can never rest because the responsibility of preserving scholarly knowledge is immense, and since becoming progressively digital, it has become increasingly mercurial, and the demands on their skills more intense.


For hundreds of years until the last part of the previous century, the record of scholarly output lay in printed publications – journals and books; the network of knowledge existed through the citations and referencing listed in them. Access to these publications was largely restricted, controlled by publishers owning the rights and academic libraries holding the books and journals. Librarians played vital roles in archiving and curating the knowledge they contained. Much of this changed as scholarly output became more digital. Not only did barriers to publication fall away, accelerating content generation, but the forms of that content changed and multiplied.


Barriers to accessing the content fell away too. Critically, digital preservation technology emerged and then changed, rapidly evolving as one format replaced the other. It is still changing. This has fostered the development of specialist collaborative organisations such as CLOCKSS – a digital archive jointly owned by, and indeed for, academic publishers and research libraries.


Dr Alicia Wise,Executive Director of CLOCKSS, says the service is like the Global Seed Vault but for knowledge, and uses the analogy of perpetual motion in describing the work of the digital preservation community. As Wise points out, ensuring organised access for current scholastic enquiry is not the core mission for archives entrusted with curating human knowledge; ensuring its long-term preservation is. That was relatively simple when it meant filing away printed publications. Today, digital scholarship exists in multiple forms and formats – audio, visual, code, data, software, text, workflows, and methods. Each must be catalogued and cross-referenced, and authorship and other rights established, and everything must be correctly archived and maintained. Future readers might need the full-text or information buried in a line of code in metadata.


For organisations such as CLOCKSS, digital preservation is more than an electronic snapshot of scholarly output. It’s about constructing, maintaining, and preserving all the connections between that output – something Wise calls the ‘knowledge graph’. But this graph is not lineal; it is continually growing and changing. Scholars build upon the works of those who came before in an ever-changing knowledge ecosphere, all using technology that is a mere blink in the progress of time. Not so long ago, libraries would have been on the Rolodex of laser disc manufacturers. Today, data sits as binary code in silicon chips. Tomorrow, information could be conveyed as femtosecond laser pulses in glass or coiled within human DNA.


The responsibility of maintaining this morphing knowledge graph falls to the digital preservation community, and as more and more of that graph finds its way onto the web, its decentralised nature presents several digital preservation challenges. Authors and other creators are based around the globe, as are their publishers and university libraries. This means there are a wide variety of cultures and languages to understand and respect, and many different national laws on matters such as copyright.


Another challenge to digital preservation is versioning – the once relatively simple process of maintaining different versions or iterations of scholarly output over time. Publishers are focused on quality assurance of the scholarly record to ensure the reproducibility, transparency, and sometimes retraction of research results. Libraries and archives must keep pace. And while academia may be their primary audience today, a wider audience awaits, fuelled by demands for open access and the democratization of knowledge.


Scholarly output must therefore be discoverable beyond the traditional search tools of libraries and academic publishers. And who picks up the baton when a publisher is no longer able or willing to look after its authors’ publications? This is where effective digital scholarly archiving is critical. Unlike a printed publication sitting in plain sight on a shelf, a digital publication is hidden away unless someone draws a path to its door and lays a map for further exploration on the welcome mat. That means caring for digital scholarship over time is a relay race, with the baton handed from publisher to archive. Archives protect the legacy of authors.


For Wise and her colleagues within the digital preservation community, permanence is a promise never realised. They are well aware that when preserving material for decades, let alone centuries, the content is likely to outlast the services preserving it. Few technologies will survive, but the need for human knowledge is everlasting. Every preservation service needs to remember its method is temporary, but its purpose is eternal. Collaboration is, therefore, critical for the digital preservation community. They must reach out to interested stakeholders: authors, libraries, publishers, and people with expert knowledge in communication, information security, copyright and licensing, metadata, software design, and more.


Changes in the technologies, formats, standards, and the nature of scholarship itself means that digital archivists can never rest. It is like a relay race with no end, and the baton gets heavier with every step. At no point do you cross the line, and dropping the baton is not an option; passing it on to the next person and service for the next generation is the sole point. Today’s scholars trust their output will find its rightful place in the ever-expanding network of human knowledge. In the words of Wise, if preservation is your calling, anticipate perpetual motion.


That’s all for this episode – thanks for listening. Links to Wise’s original research can be found in the show notes below and, as always, stay subscribed to Research Pod for more of the latest science.


See you again soon.

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