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 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.