Open Access Research

One thing that really struck me about the way that the writers presented their blogs and themselves was their openness. The writers were upfront about their topics, presenting their arguments in what was often a very easy to follow manner. I think part of this is because they are aware of the relatively new manner of the digital history field. The writers were also very open about their credentials and often included links to their work that they had published online.

For example, in Trevor Owens‘ piece on Sunrise on Methodology and Radical Transparency of Sources in Historical Writing, he explains the shift from text-based work towards big data and online research tools. He highlights the benefits, from ideals of transparency and collaboration to simple but powerful improvements in access to finding sources and increasing scholarly accountability. He mirrors some of this accountability in his “Bio” section when he describes the numerous roles he has held and currently holds.  This not only establishes his credentials, but lays out his fields of expertise and biases.

Other others do something similar on their sites. W. Caleb McDaniel lists all his qualifications as well as the years and institutions he acquired them at. He also links to the free online introduction to his book. By doing so, he is promoting his Open Source argument and reinforcing his argument about the benefits of open intellectual exchange and the value of hyperlinks.

McDaniel’s article raised many questions for myself and my classmates. Primarily, they seemed to focus on the concerns about intellectual property, copyrights, and “stealing” ideas. Ktamg’s annotation does some work to clarify things, writing that the author is most likely alluding to version control rather than modification of the original. Natalie214 raised a question about other researchers taking and modifying another’s work. Csamuelson began a discussion which myself and several others participated in which focused on “messing” with other people’s notes or work because it is all publicly available.

It is through these conversations that the class began to really wrestle with the dangers and opportunities of “open access research”. One one hand, the benefits were well laid out by a variety of authors. Open access research can be verified and carefully nuanced through collaboration. It is not restricted to one person and has a much higher likelihood of being retrieved in a readable format than proprietary means. It allows remote access and avoids duplication of notes and sources, and it fosters a closer-knit community of historians and the general public.

On the other hand, our experience as history students within the traditional institution, has made us question its utility. While not explicitly taught, the emphasis on rigorous footnoting practices and carefully cited primary sources has instilled a fear of “stealing” from others or being accused of less than honest behaviour. After all, we are all quite aware of what we don’t know and what others know. That’s why we are doing research and looking through other historians’ work. The emphasis on doing primary research and compiling detailed research notes has embedded within us an understanding of the time, commitment, and effort involved in doing history and we see the unfairness of just taking that from others. We have been conditioned to do our own work and to value it as our contribution. Ian Milligan touches on these concerns in his blog posting and Kathleen Fitzpatrick criticises the way we were taught: to work in opposition to other historians by criticising their methods and arguments, unpacking their findings and by presenting parallel histories. Finally, Sheila Brennan’s honest discussion about the difficulties she has had in producing her publication Stamping American Memory highlights the challenges that still exist in making digital history understandable to traditional publishers and fellow academics, while also exploring the practical challenges yet to be resolved.

So, when I consider the dangers and opportunities of open access research, I am pretty evenly torn right now. I see the dangers of stealing others work, of losing credibility from poorly thought out ideas or badly researched theories, of trying to get publishers and others on board, and of all the ethical and practical quirks still to be worked out. I also agree with others who are excited about more collaboration, safer data storage, increased access to data and new opportunities. I guess for me a student, at this point in my career, I see open access as a tool to add to the ones I already use. I would love to embrace aspects of it like increased collaboration with colleagues and see this as especially useful for working internationally or across vast research topics. I like being able to access my work from any appropriate internet-enabled device and I like having easier access to the thoughts and conversations happening around me. I also like the physical work of reading old newspapers, of visiting with people or buildings, and of taking the time to deeply immerse myself in a particular research question with all the complexities and context surrounding it. I guess I’m also a bit concerned about how applicable this approach is in the moment, especially as people are still using “old” methods and are “stuck” in the binary of “my research, my work, my findings”.

I think for digital history as we have been discussing it to really catch on, we would need to introduce it into more history classes, work seriously on the logistical, ethical, and legal questions it raises, and wait until my generation (or the next) is ready to jump wholeheartedly into the field. Who knows, by then the field may have shifted again. So, I say, it seems interesting. Tell me more and let’s give it a try and see.

One Reply to “Open Access Research”

  1. Some really interesting points here. I appreciate your hesitancy in adopting open-access as a panacea for what ails the historical profession. But I also wonder if the hesitancy to adopt these new digital strategies stems from the idea that one needs to “earn their bones” by doing the research by themselves. Rather than venturing to an archive, accessing a hyperlink seems to cheapen the means of historical production for some.
    I also agree with you that this needs to be tool added to our toolbox as historians, but we also must not lose sight of the physical work which can often be the most rewarding part of being a historian!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *