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.