Week 13: Scholarly Communication and Open Access Open Source

When I started my Masters program at the University of Edinburgh, I had an idea – an ideal – of what Grad School would be like. I envisioned intellectual conversations about history, art, theatre, literature, and science happening in the flat at dinner, over a cup of coffee, or a late night beer. I believed that to enter Graduate School was to enter a realm of scholarly discussion and inquiry.

The reality of my MSc was that, outside of class, these conversations happened only with a handful of people: a few fellow students, occasionally one who lived in my block of flats, and frequent conversations about culture and cultural differences with my friends, a computer programmer and a translator.

I wanted to open with the above not to complain but to point out the importance of scholarly communication. Most academics/scholars benefit from and crave conversation with other scholars, about the topics which we study and about intellectual subjects in general. One of my main activities on Twitter is following conversations about digital history and humanities.

The readings for this week discuss the frame of the conversations. Do we have them behind closed doors, in limited circles, or do we put them in open places where others have access? Journal articles behind paywalls limit the audience of a conversation, and may prevent a conversation from even happening. Opening access to a journal or article not only allows conversation to happen, but brings in a wider audience. But you don’t have to take my word for it (( Sorry, I couldn’t resist a Reading Rainbow moment))  – read the paper/post Amanda French presented almost a year ago at MLA: Your Twitter followers and Facebook friends won’t read your peer-reviewed article if they have to pay for it, and neither will strangers.

Why do we want a wider audience? For one thing, “wider” doesn’t mean “non-professional” or even “non-historian.” Smaller museums and colleges may not have sufficient funding for their libraries/departments to subscribe to more than a handful of journals, if any. Historians outside of academia may be unable to access conversations to which they could provide valuable contributions. Moreover, it can be useful to have the input of an archaeologist, anthropologist, or other professional in a close field on certain topics – at least in material culture I find the first of that list to be a fantastic resource. Engaging a wider audience in our scholarly communication can enrich it and possibly lead it in new, exciting directions.

As for the issue of copyright, also raised in this week’s discussions: I find US copyright law to be labyrinthine, byzantine, frustrating, aggravating, and overall complex. I do not object to the concept of copyright overall, merely to the way that it seems to have been manipulated in such a way that everything created is now a commodity which must be sold or protected. (( Lessig explains clearly this process, which is something that has bothered me in a vague way for a few years )) My frustration lies primarily with how complicated it is has made working with archival material.

At my museum job, I was charged with finding out if there was possibly any copyright on personal letters written in the early 19th century, never published. The answer, as far as I could determine, was “probably not.” For digital work, we get to complicate the matter by asking who, if anyone, “owns” the rights to an image of that personal letter. The descendants of the writer? The holding institution? The person who takes the photograph?  Perhaps less important than the actual answer is the fact that fear of being sued prevents people from creating works or using sources.  Copyright can protect and inspire creativity, but it can also haunt creators and silence them.

5 thoughts on “Week 13: Scholarly Communication and Open Access Open Source”

  1. Amen!!
    The problem with closed access became quickly apparent to me when I graduated from undergrad. Suddenly JSTOR was beyond my reach, unless I wanted to pay $30 per article. Why once we have graduated are we no longer privy to academic conversations? This all seems counter-intuitive for scholars that see themselves as “public intellectuals.”

  2. I echo Jeri’s comment about open access–I hated the day when GWU’s library network figured out that I had graduated and thus no longer gave me off-site access to its databases. At the time I was working for an exhibition design firm, so those databases were valuable to my work disseminating well-researched history to the general public. They just were not valuable enough for the firm to pony up subscription costs. If there was something I needed from one of these databases, I needed to go to the library with my MacBook. Not a terrible pain since I live in Clarendon, but nonetheless took away from my time working on other projects. Sometimes I would just make due with other sources–not always the best thing.

  3. I agree with Jeri and David’s comments. It’s particularly frustrating to be a working historian for the government and not be able to access JSTOR and other databases except through my GMU account. Someday (hopefully) I will finish being a student at GMU and then how will I get access? The government doesn’t really understanding paying for a single (or just a few) employee(s) to have access to resources so I’d have to get an act of Congress to get authorization (althought they clearly aren’t able to accomplish anything else right now so maybe I’ll go make a phone call).

  4. Since we’re all echoing each other, I’ll join in the chorus. For that first year after graduating from VCU I loved still having access to JSTOR. I would search for articles for work and occasionally for pleasure. There were many instances where the articles I found on JSTOR proved incredibly useful for projects I was working on (they also improved my outreach and tours). Then I lost my access when VCU purged my user name from the its active student system. I was very excited when the VHS finally got a subscription to JSTOR. However, I believe the VHS was able to get a subscription because JSTOR wanted to put the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in its database. That meant that the VHS either got a free subscription or at least a discounted one (I wasn’t privy to the information, but I do know that when JSTOR made the VMHB articles available, the VHS suddenly had access). In an ideal world all this information would be free and open, but organizations like JSTOR have to play their employees, for the maintenance of the servers, and the like. There is definitely a fine balance that has to be achieved; a balance I’m not entirely convinced most organizations have achieved. I was actually pondering “pay-walls” the other day and how people howled when the NY Times announced it was going to charge subscriptions for full access. At first I was slightly bummed, but upon closer consideration I realized that for the most part if you wanted full access to a newspaper in the pre-digital era you had to pay for a copy. Why is it now that we expect to get our newspapers for free (at least in digital form)? Can you imagine a cleaner Wash Post website without all those ads?! Still the pre-digital world one newspaper only cost 75 cents (Where the hell is the cents symbol on my keyboard? What happened to the cents symbol?! Don’t tell me I have to go into the character map to get it, that’s ridiculous! Then again, was it ever on a keyboard?) or at least $1.25 for a weekend edition. That’s a lot less that the yearly/monthly subscription they could conceivably charge you for the digital subscription. It would be nice to make information available to as many people as possible to spur innovation and creativity – hence open access. This whole situation is a very thorny issue. And like Megan stated, the whole of copyright law is ridiculously byzantine. I suspect it’s the twin brother to the US tax code.

    1. You make a good point about the need for revenue streams. It’s a tricky problem.
      My main complaint with the NYT being behind a paywall is that it’s all the articles. I wish they’d let it be free the day it’s published and then, maybe a week later, move it to the paywall. That’s the model a number of other newspapers seem to use. It also, to me anyway, echos the difference in effort between walking into my public library to read today’s issue and going through the back-issues trying to find something.

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