Surfing the free resource wave: managing temporary access to online resources during the COVID-19 pandemic

The image shows a hand holding up a smartphone with a photograph of library bookshelves on the screen. In the background, out of focus, is a desk with an open book on it.

Access to ejournals and ebooks is a massive part of the service that the Library provides. In this post, one of our E-Resources librarians, Karen, talks about how they managed the temporary access to additional online resources when publishers and platforms made their content open during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes the guidance provided to staff and students to help them make best use of the temporary access to the additional content.

Back in March when Birkbeck, and therefore our library, had to close due to the rise of COVID-19 I don’t think I was alone in hoping that this was something that was going to be over within a few weeks at most and that normality would return. For me, this was only a blip; we all would be back in no time to support our students.

Obviously, things changed very quickly and at the forefront the e-resources team was making sure our students knew what resources were accessible and available to them. Our library website overflows with information that explains what databases can be accessed. Our ejournals can be searched, ebook titles are available on the catalogue, and our ‘LibGuides’ match specific resources to the various subjects offered – and so much more. However, not only did COVID-19 bring a lockdown but for the library world it also brought an enormous tidal wave of ‘free’ information. Publishers big and small, various educational institutions and specialist schools opened their virtual doors and invited us all in to access what would normally be password- or paywall-protected information.

There has always been free information out there, ‘Open Access’ demand is continually growing and gaining more prominence each year. It is a topic hotly discussed and debated but when suddenly there is no restriction on vital information that supports students in an online academic world, what do you do? The obvious answer is you take everything you can.

It is an understatement to say we were bombarded with a lot of information. The offers that were coming through had to be checked, queried, understood and – most importantly of all – shared when established as valid. Some e-resources that were being offered seemed too good to be true and, when investigated further, were indeed discovered to be too good to be true and, therefore, notably ‘dodgy.’

Us librarians are a sturdy bunch and are not put off by a bit of sifting and sorting and that is what was done. By wading through the ocean of information of what resources where available the ‘Free Access to Online Resources’ library guide was born. The guide promoted publisher offers such as those by Oxford University Press who opened their specialist Collections, and by Science Direct who made their 326 textbooks available. JSTOR made over 30,000 ebooks available, while De Gruyter had 75,000 ebooks for use. Different university presses – Chicago, California, Project MUSE, to name a few – made their online journals freely accessible. Free publisher trials to resources were also a major offer and from March until July we participated in over 30 trials covering everything from Law and Business to Science, Art and History.

The ‘Free Access to Online Resources’ guide needed to be updated daily. The guide explained what could be accessed and how, when and where. It also indicated the resources that where not limited to Birkbeck students and staff only – resources that anyone could access. Specific COVID-19 resources made freely available by publishers and health institutions were highlighted as well as open online digital collections from museums around the world. Information on wellbeing was also provided in the guide, due to isolation being a cause for concern in this COVID-19 world. Being able to highlight free resources for support was extremely important.

Since this LibGuide was created it has had over 10,000 views and it is still available. What is being made freely available by publishers or organisations has reduced, but the guide is still here to highlight places to check for freely available ebooks, journal articles and other research outputs.

Sharing is caring and there are very good resources freely available out there: make use of our ‘Free Access to Online Resources’ guide especially this Open Access week – perhaps you’ll find that bit of ‘surprise’ research that is of value to you!

Karen Harrad, E-Resources Support Assistant

Lockdown research: how COVID-19 and Open Access shaped a new project

A digital art image showing five arms and hands holding up hearts in different colours. The middle heart is rainbow-coloured.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected teaching, it has also had a major impact on research at Birkbeck. We spoke to Dr Fiona Tasker about her work, and how COVID-19 and Open Access have influenced it. Fiona is a Reader in Psychology at the College, and took time out of her busy start to the academic year to discuss with us her research in the time of a pandemic. 

A photograph of Dr Fiona Tasker
Dr Fiona Tasker

What were your main research topics before the COVID-19 lockdown? 

My research interests typically lie in social developmental psychology, family psychology, and LGBTQ psychology. I’m interested in family relationships, identity development of adults and children, and children’s social and emotional development in both non-traditional and new family forms. For example, much of my research has been on LGBTQ-parented families, post-divorce families, and families formed by adopting children or through assisted reproduction.

How has this changed since COVID-19?  

There were BBC reports suggesting that COVID-19 and the lockdown placed more young people back in family environments, often closed off from their usual support networks, and that this might particularly affect vulnerable young people who were unsupported in their families. Around May reports from community organizations began to be released on the web on how lockdown was affecting LGBTQ young people, such as the LGBT Foundation’s Hidden Figures report.  

So, at the beginning of lockdown, we started the LGBTQ* UK COVID-19 Lockdown Experiences Project together with colleagues, led by Jorge Gato, at the University of Porto similarly concerned about the pandemic and the LGBTQ community in Portugal. This took the form of a short anonymous survey, aimed at LGBTQ* people between 18 and 35. We sought to find out about their experiences during this Coronavirus pandemic. We received over 400 responses to this first survey. Since then the international project has grown to include Italy, Sweden, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Israel too. 

So there was certainly a clear path from the pre-COVID work to this project. 

What inspired this change?  

Seeing the community need for action during the pandemic, I wanted to be doing something useful during the lockdown. While others have volunteered doing things like mutual aid, I wasn’t in a position to do that. But I realised could put some research in motion and contribute to the greater good in that way.  

It’s about being responsive as a researcher to situations that arise, and about what you can do to highlight a problem and contextualize it within a particular field.   

Existing research helped us see how LGBTQ young people could be vulnerable, but we also know that LGBTQ communities are often efficient at networking within online communities and good at mobilising quickly. So our research questions examining the psychological well-being of LGBTQ people consider both vulnerability processes and also the strengths and resilience people have built up too. 

What was your experience of Open Access and preprints before this pandemic started? 

I would usually use Research Gate to access preprints, either asking other researchers for private copies of their work or, if they had uploaded it, the public version. However, preprints are not peer reviewed, so there is a reliance on researcher integrity and you have to be aware of this.  

I don’t share anything that hasn’t yet been peer reviewed. When publishing, there is often a lot of small print about what an author is allowed to do with a preprint version of a paper. I usually use the Library’s publication repository BIROn. I like that the Library has the expertise to understand the small print and ensure that I’m not breaking the rules the publisher set out. I do often mirror the BIROn papers on ResearchGate, which increase the exposure of my work.  

Have you used preprints during this lockdown period?  

I’ve not released any preprints, but we do have a paper under currently under review for a special pandemic issue of the Journal of Homosexuality which cites many preprints. These preprints account for 10 out of the 29 references in the paper. Which is a little higher than I’d usually expect.  

At the beginning of lockdown, when we were looking to apply for funding for this current project, we knew there was very little out there on the topic. Our funder, The British Academy, require that we undertake a literature review to show that the project is grounded and would contribute to the academic field. So we had to use preprints in the literature review as that was where the relevant literature was.  

Another example of using what was out there were the BBC News reports, reports by the EC and UN, and by community organizations that I mentioned earlier. This was again more evidence that this research would be important and deserved funding.  

So the preprints, and the reports, went into the application to build the case that this was timely and relevant research.  

Can you tell us about the expanded survey you are running now?  

It’s been expanded in response to LGBTQ* community feedback. We were being approached by those over 35 with a desire to be represented. We also wanted to ask more on the pandemic experience, so there are more targeted questions on challenges and opportunities due to the pandemic. These questions were formed out of the first survey respondents’ written comments on the wider impact of the pandemic on their lives. 

Dr Fiona Tasker is currently running an expanded second survey for the UK LGBTQ* COVID-19 Lockdown 18-60 Experiences Research Project. 

For details on the survey, including how to take part, visit the project web page

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