Does Information want to be free?


Last week, I had the fortune of spending an afternoon with Peter Brush, Vanderbilt University’s Reference and History Librarian. We discussed how Open Access (the emerging culture of online free-of-charge access to scholarly materials such as journals, databases and teaching materials) could affect historians and the way we produce and consume knowledge.

The Access Principle, by John Willinsky (Read this book for free at MIT Press)

The debates surrounding Open Access reach beyond the obvious issues of affordable access to more information for a greater number of scholars. The expansion of this movement carries philosophical, economic, and political ramifications that affect historians as much as or more so than free access to the latest field journal or database.

Open Access isn’t free, of course. There are costs related to web-hosting and peer review, and the costs are distributed differently. This makes Open Access an economic issue every University grapples with in some way or another, as funds are reshuffled between departments and libraries to accommodate these changes.

These economic changes then become political ones as academic administrators work out this new distribution of funds. The political debates are supported with philosophical questions: who should bear the burden of cost for knowledge, and who should have access the fruits of our labor?

Some Universities, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have adopted Open Access publishing across the board, while others like Harvard and Yale have implemented this in some of their schools. While Open Access of scholarly articles hasn’t taken the history world by storm the way it has the fields of Science, Technology and Medicine, as the pricing crisis filters down and affects more individuals, institutional enthusiasm for Open Access has the potential for dramatic increase. “Open access is an assault on the scholarly publishing paradigm. It shakes up the industry, forces it to change; to be innovative and make it more responsive to the needs of the producers and consumers of history,” says Brush.

Currently the biggest Open Access-related impact in the field of history is the prevalence of available archival materials. Universities themselves are often willing to become stakeholders in the process of maintaining these primary-source databases. Making primary source material available for free to anyone with an internet connection leads to benefits beyond savings in time and money for historians: The Open Access sources actually stimulate and create interest in the fields, and in many cases are responsible for the increased dialogue between historians of the US and the world. While the wealthier universities bear the initial financial burden of archiving primary source material, they reap the benefits of collaboration and fulfilling their self-ascribed obligations to the global scholarly community.

The international community has surpassed the United States by leaps and bounds in the demands for Open Access. The Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities acknowledges that the Internet now offers the chance to “constitute a global and interactive representation of human knowledge, including cultural heritage and the guarantee of worldwide access.” The signatories pledge  to find solutions that support further development of the existing legal and financial frameworks in order to facilitate optimal use and access. In this case, Open Access to information is treated like a human right.

While scholars and publishers remain skeptical of legal and financial issues, quality control, and other challenges presented by Open Access, it is an impetus for change. Open Access provides an alternative competition to the existing model of academic information exchange, and in the capitalist age of information monopolies, it could be a very powerful thing indeed.

While the direction of Open Access is promising yet uncertain, it is my hope that in the midst of the debate, historians can all become more effective researchers and educators with only the best tools at our disposal.

The Internet Archive


Open Archives Initiative (OAI)


Directory of Open Access Journals


2010 Conference on Access to Knowledge and Human Rights, Yale Law School

Open Access Archivangelism

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10 Responses to “Does Information want to be free?”

  1. Stevan Harnad Says:

    Yale? I can’t find them in ROARMAP, alongside MIT and Harvard and the rest of the 101 Open Access mandates from institutions and departments (and 42 from funders, plus 59 for theses) registered to date:

    If Eli has one, let him scoot over and register it!

  2. Lauren Says:

    I think one of the main reasons this phenomenon is not taking the history world by storm as it has with the sciences is that historians are taught at the basic level these days that ‘big picture’ history, or ‘history of the greats’ is morally wrong to study over the history of the ‘every man.’ This means kids are not getting the larger picture of how important history is, nor are they getting excited anymore with stories of Alexander or Genghis, but now with the shoemaker at the tea party, or another bystander’s opinion (aka- applying social networking type commentary to the past). Meanwhile, the sciences are becoming more about the big picture — Steven Hawking setting the example in making it accessible and still pertinent. But now I’ve rambled. Great post with useful links, appreciate it.

    • Angela Sutton Says:

      Thanks for your comment, Lauren. I think another reason this phenomenon is still largely with the MTS subjects is the difference in how information is used: People in the MTS subjects need the most up-to-date data on which to base their works in progress. For them, most things older than a year or so are worthless except for from a history of science viewpoint.

      Historians, on the other hand, need to know how views of a subject progressed throughout history, and therefore the information we use does not expire. We rely on monographs (books) and articles make up around 10% of our bibliographies. Unlike articles, the majority of these books often appeal to a very limited number of people, and would be too expensive to digitize and archive– my guess is that it’s probably cheaper to leave them in hard copy since there are more than enough of those to go around already.

  3. Meine Verlag – BLOG » Blog Archive » Die Einflüsse von Open Access auf das Verhältnis der Universitäten untereinander Says:

    [...] das Ver­hält­nis der Uni­ver­si­tä­ten unter­ein­an­der gele­sen (Titel des Blog­post: Does Infor­ma­tion want to be free?). Ein wich­ti­ger Aspekt sprach Sut­ton in ihrem Bei­trag an. Open Access hat nicht nur [...]

  4. research AND writing | method AND narrative « History Compass Exchanges Says:

    [...] History Compass Exchanges « Does Information want to be free? [...]

  5. Uptown Says:

    I was cursing and swearing this week as I assembled online links for various papers and theses with data for a book I’m working on: lots of obscure stuff on legal history in the States, etc.

    But hey – I’m writing the book to back my for-profit consultancy, I’ll be able to access it all in a remote cottage 100 miles from the nearest research library, and none of the work I’m accessing would have been available (free or otherwise) in my local research library back when I was in University 20 years ago because it was all from journals that would never be stocked in one place, except (perhaps) the Library of Congress.

    Some prices for papers and theses are a little high – I’m running into a $40 hit wherever I go – but once I got over the shock, it’s not hard to do the math and see it’d all cost a fraction of the flight to Washington or wherever I’d have to go if it was 1988 all over again. So, no real complaints. And most students can access all of this stuff free from library databases, and that’s cool.

    I’ve always believed the problem with a truly “free” information economy is that it’ll be worth every penny.

  6. Meine Verlag – BLOG » Blog Archive » Open Access: Wissen für jedermann, aber nicht unbedingt kostenfrei Says:

    [...] Arti­kel zu Does Infor­ma­tion want to be free? [...]

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