Open Access, Open Source, and the Responsibilities of Historians in the Digital World

· by admin

Yesterday I attended WordCamp Baltimore, a WordPress developers conference.  Aaron Jorbin, a well-known WordPress developer in the D.C. area, gave the keynote address which was about open source platforms and the open source community.  If you aren’t familiar with the «.org» version of WordPress, it is open source and free to anyone who wants to use, modify, or develop the software.  Jorbin’s keynote was entitled «Citizenship in the Open Source World» and he talked a lot about the responsibilities and the rights of a citizen in the «Open Source World.»  Jorbin argued that in the «Open Source World,» the free flow of information is crucial and as citizens we have the responsibility to share knowledge because open source is a team sport.  The freedoms of this world include the freedom to learn, to use, to change, and to distribute.

It was a great keynote, but how do the responsibilities and the rights of a citizen in the world of Open Source software relate to the world of Open Access scholarship?  I think Jorbin made several points about the open source nature of WordPress that can also relate to open access for scholarship.

First, the free flow of information is absolutely crucial.  I think as historians we tend to complain a lot about history in the average person’s world.  We are concerned with how they get history, who produced the history, and mostly the quality of the history they are engaging with.  I personally am guilty of complaining frequently about the History channel and it’s lack of actual History.  (Ancient Aliens is just awful.)  However, I think we really have no room to complain if our  scholarship is being locked up in the vaults of scholarly journals and databases such as JSTOR which charge an outrageous amount of money for access.  If the scholarship of professional historians is not easily available to the public, then we really have no room to complain about the kinds of history the public is interacting with.  Allowing our scholarship to be open access whether that means a journal publishing their articles for free on the web or an author publishing their newest book or article on their blog or website, allows us to take a step toward transparency and democratic scholarship that takes advantage of what the internet has to offer.

Secondly, the collaborative and community oriented nature of open source platforms was discussed a lot.  Jorbin argued that the benefit of getting involved in open access software was that you would receive great feedback from the community and, in turn, continue to learn more and more about programming.  I think this in relation to academia is an interesting thought and one that is at the heart of open access in scholarship.  Peer review is one of the cornerstones of academia, and I think part of the fear about open access is that it removes this checkpoint in the publication of scholarship.  I would argue though, that open access allows for better peer review because it creates a community where you can get more diverse feedback and engage in a conversation with this community about the ideas and issues in your work.  Peer review in this sense doesn’t take place first and as a checkpoint before publication and I think it allows for a more involved conversation about historical events and topics.

I struggle with the idea of open access because I see both sides of it.  I understand both author’s and journal’s hesitation to publish articles and content for free but I also think that we are doing a huge disservice to both ourselves and the public by keeping scholarship locked up.  I think there is also this misconception by some that just because something is free it is somehow not as good as something that is paid for.  You see this a lot with software.  The software that was developed by a private company is often times thought to be more secure, have more robust options, and be better supported than software that is open source.  I think you see this hesitation with scholarship that is available freely.  Somehow the fear is that scholarship that is available freely on the web is less important, influential, or reputable than scholarship that goes through the traditional channels. Personally, I think this couldn’t be more wrong.

I think academia can learn some things from the open source community and the way they operate.  Rather than viewing scholarship as an individual endeavor we should be taking advantage of the benefits an open access community and system would bring our scholarship.