Conferences are where a huge amount of research gets its first public airing. And yet conference papers are notoriously hard to track down after the fact.

Some conferences still publish their proceedings in print monographs; some on CD, DVD, or USB stick; an increasing number in special issues of journals. Some publish them on websites that may or may not last beyond the year. Access may be limited to attendees or to database subscribers. Many don’t publish at all, leaving it up to the author to remember and find the time to self-deposit.

Meanwhile the Open Access movement has paid remarkably little attention to the potential of conference outputs. OpCit’s open access citation advantage bibliography (now maintained by SPARC Europe) includes 32 papers sourced from conferences — but only two about conferences. The Public Knowledge Project’s conferences are full to the brim with papers about the use of Open Journal System (OJS), but not even every year do they have a single paper about Open Conference System (OCS). At least they make these papers Open Access, though. Many Open Access conferences don’t.

Conference from OpenClipArt

Conference from OpenClipArt

Why is this? Many argue that conference papers just aren’t that valuable. They’re not peer-reviewed (though some are) and often represent early results that will be further developed and presented formally in journals (though many aren’t). Certainly they’re cited less, but is this just a case of academic sour grapes: we can’t find them so we say we never really wanted them anyway?

Have publishers, libraries and Open Access advocates ignored conferences because they’re too hard — or are they too hard because we’ve ignored them?

Are we being responsible in withholding early and thus potentially unreliable results from the public, or are we being anti-democratic? If we care about public access to publicly funded research we should be asking these questions.

So what can we do? It’s a big issue, but there are some obvious steps.

Conference organisers: Think about open publication of the papers and posters presented. There’s heaps of software out there to help manage this.

Libraries: If you support your academic community with OJS, look into whether there’d be interest in you supporting them with OCS too.

Authors: If the conference isn’t publishing your paper, or doesn’t have a clear plan for ongoing hosting, put it in your institutional repository, a disciplinary archive, or figshare, so researchers will be able to find (and cite) it.

These are only stop-gap solutions. In the long term what I think we really need is a global, multi-disciplinary archive for all conference outputs — abstracts, papers, slides, posters, videos, hackathon code — which may allow author self-deposit but whose main focus is on actively soliciting for bulk-deposit from entire conferences. If you agree (or disagree!) contact me: this is a topic I’m continuing to research.

Deborah Fitchett is Senior Advisor Digital Access in Lincoln University’s Library, Teaching and Learning; has an abiding interest in Open Access; and blogs sporadically on her website.

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