On 12 May 1997, a group of people met at the University of Surrey at the initiative of Thomas Krichel, then a graduate student and lecturer there. The topic was to discuss Krichel’s proposal of a scheme to exchange metadata about publications in economics, in particular working papers. With its adoption, RePEc was born, and its scheme is today still powering the data collection for all RePEc services. You can find more about the history of RePEc here.
RePEc was not born out of nowhere. Since 1992, Krichel had been trying to find a way to improve the dissemination of research in economics. He was frustrated that it was very difficult for him to have access to the frontier of research. Then, as now, it was disseminated through working papers, given that the journal publication process is excessively long in economics. But access to those working papers, then only in paper form, was limited to well-connected economists. With the help of a few documentalists who were receiving working papers in the mail, he started disseminating announcements of new papers through email lists. You still had to request them by mail, though. Later he put those directories on a web precursor, gopher, and then on the web, and finally with links to full texts. Older economists may remember WoPEc, BibEc, BizEc, HoPEc, WebEc, CodEc, JokEc, all under the umbrella on NetEc. Krichel, with the help of a few volunteers and a little funding maintained all those resources. But at some point, there was just too much material on the web to index by hand. A new system was needed.
RePEc was that system. What was devised in 1997 is still in place today. It has proven robust because it is simple, it is extremely cheap to run, and it puts the costs and incentives in the right place. It is simple because the metadata syntax is straightforward and requires only to upload text files on the respective publisher’s website. It is cheap to run because technically all that is required to keep RePEc alive is a list of files that point where the metadata of the publishers reside. The cost of indexing is on the publishers, who are also the ones who want to have their works listed (or are pressured by authors to do so). The collected metadata is then essentially put in the public domain, and anybody can create a service that uses this data. This makes also possible that RePEc can continue even if it does not receive any funding. RePEc services may come and go, depending on sponsorship, but the data is here to stay.
In those twenty years, what has been achieved? The goal was to enhance the dissemination of economic research, to democratize access to it for authors and for readers. To date, we have close to 2,000 participating archives covering 2.3 millions items in 8,000 serials (yes, this is more than one a day over 20 years), including close to 3,000 journals and 4,500 working paper series. 50,000 authors have registered with RePEc. 75,000 subscriptions receive paper announcements through email, more through RSS and Twitter. 10 million references have been extracted and matched. The few reporting services counted 100 million downloads. Additional services have enhanced the collected data in various ways. A list of all services known to use RePEc services are listed on the RePEc home page.
All of this, and more, has been achieved by volunteers, some sponsorship, and a little bit of grant money. While we think we can pat ourselves on our backs for all what was done in the past, we must also keep the future in mind. As mentioned, RePEc is built to last with no funding, that is good. However, the team of core volunteers has evolved little over time. They are all twenty years older now, and fresh blood would be welcome. RePEc also faces commercial competition with deep pockets, some of which is using or even started with RePEc data. While the latter aspect satisfies the mission of RePEc, enhancing the dissemination of research in economics, it may bite into the motivation of our volunteers. Or not. The key is that we continue to stay ahead with innovation, even if they end up being copied, like our citation extraction and rankings. But keep in mind that RePEc services are always free, and will not shut down like a commercial service that has become unprofitable. Suggestions for enhancing RePEc and its services are always welcome.
Finally a special thank you to all of the volunteers who have helped in RePEc in big, small and tiny ways. RePEc is run by economists for economists. Many volunteers are anonymous, or are to numerous to record. Here are a few: Core team, NEP editors, EDIRC contributors, Plagiarism Committee members, Biblio editors, Genealogy contributors, MPRA editors, and most importantly, all our archive maintainers. More volunteers are welcome.