Digital Humanities in 2008, II: Scholarly Communication & Open Access

Open access, just like dark chocolate and blueberries, is good and good for you, enabling information to be mined and reused, fostering the exchange of ideas, and ensuring public access to research that taxpayers often helped to fund.  Moreover, as Dan Cohen contends, scholars benefit from open access to their work, since their own visibility increases: “In a world where we have instantaneous access to billions of documents online, why would you want the precious article or book you spent so much time on to exist only on paper, or behind a pay wall? This is a sure path to invisibility in the digital age.”  Thus some scholars are embracing social scholarship, which promotes openness, collaboration, and sharing research.  This year saw some positive developments in open access and scholarly communications, such as the implementation of the NIH mandate, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts & Science’s decision to go open access (followed by Harvard Law), and the launch of the Open Humanities Press.  But there were also some worrisome developments (the Conyers Bill’s attempt to rescind the NIH mandate, EndNote’s lawsuit against Zotero) and some confusing ones (the Google Books settlement).  In the second part of my summary on the year in digital humanities, I’ll look broadly at the scholarly communication landscape, discussing open access to educational materials, new publication models, the Google Books settlement, and cultural obstacles to digital publication.

Open Access Grows–and Faces Resistance

In December of 2007, the NIH Public Access Policy was signed into law, mandating that any research funded by the NIH would be deposited in PubMed

Ask Me About Open Access by mollyali

Ask Me About Open Access by mollyali

Central within a year of its publication.  Since the mandate was implemented, almost 3000 new biomedical manuscripts have been deposited into PubMed Central each month.  Now John Conyers has put forward a bill that would rescind the NIH mandate and prohibit other federal agencies from implementing similar policies.  This bill would deny the public access to research that it funded and choke innovation and scientific discovery.   According to Elias Zerhouni, former director of the NIH, there is no evidence that the mandate harms publishers; rather, it maximizes the public’s “return on its investment” in funding scientific research.  If you support public access to research, contact your representative and express your opposition to this bill before February 28.  The Alliance for Taxpayer Access offers a useful summary of key issues as well as a letter template at

Open Humanities?

Why has the humanities been lagging behind the sciences in adopting open access?  Gary Hall points to several ways in which the sciences differ from the humanities, including science’s greater funding  for “author pays” open access and emphasis  on disseminating information rapidly, as well as humanities’ “negative perception of the digital medium.”   But Hall is challenging that perception by helping to launch the Open Humanities Press (OHP) and publishing “Digitize This Book.”  Billing itself as “an international open access publishing collective in critical and cultural theory,” OHP  selects journals for inclusion in the collective  based upon their adherence to publication standards, open access standards, design standards, technical standards, and editorial best practices. Prominent scholars such as Jonathan Culler, Stephen Greenblatt, and Jerome McGann have signed on as board members of the Open Humanities Press, giving it more prestige and academic credibility.  In a talk at UC Irvine last spring,  OHP co-founder Sigi Jӧttkandt refuted the assumption that open access means “a sort of open free-for-all of publishing” rather than high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarship.  Jӧttkandt argued that open access should be fundamental to the digital humanities: “as long as the primary and secondary materials that these tools operate on remain locked away in walled gardens, the Digital Humanities will fail to fulfill the real promise of innovation contained in the digital medium.”  It’s worth noting that many digital humanities resources are available as open access, including Digital Humanities Quarterly, the Rossetti Archive, and projects developed by CHNM; many others may not be explicitly open access, but they make information available for free.

In “ANTHROPOLOGY OF/IN CIRCULATION: The Future of Open Access and Scholarly Societies,” Christopher Kelty, Michael M. J. Fischer, Alex “Rex” Golub, Jason Baird Jackson, Kimberly Christen, and Michael F. Brown engage in a wide-ranging discussion of open access in anthropology, prompted in part by the American Anthropological Association’s decision to move its publishing activities to Wiley Blackwell.  This rich conversation explores different models for open access, the role of scholarly societies in publishing, building community around research problems, reusing and remixing scholarly content, the economics of publishing, the connection between scholarly reputation and readers’ access to publications, how to make content accessible to source communities, and much more.   As Kelty argues, “The future of innovative scholarship is not only in the AAA (American Anthropological Association) and its journals, but in the structures we build that allow our research to circulate and interact in ways it never could before.”  Kelty (who, alas, was lured away from Rice by UCLA) is exploring how to make scholarship more open and interactive.  You can buy a print copy of Two Bits, his new book on the free software movement published by Duke UP; read (for free) a PDF version of the book; comment on the CommentPress version; or download and remix the HTML.  Reporting on Two Bits at Six Months, Kelty observed, “Duke is making as little or as much money on the book as they do on others of its ilk, and yet I am getting much more from it being open access than I might otherwise.”  The project has made Kelty more visible as a scholar, leading to more media attention, invitations to give lectures and submit papers, etc.

New Models of Scholarly Communication, and Continued Resistance

To what extent are new publishing models emerging as the Internet enables the rapid, inexpensive distribution of information, the incorporation of multimedia into publications, and networked collaboration? To find out, The ARL/ Ithaka New Model Publications Study conducted an “organized scan” of emerging scholarly publications such as blogs, ejournals, and research hubs.  ARL recruited 301 volunteer librarians from 46 colleges and universities to interview faculty about new model publications that they used.  (I participated in a small way, interviewing one faculty member at Rice.)  According to the report, examples of new model publications exist in all disciplines, although scientists are more likely to use pre-print repositories, while humanities scholars participate more frequently in discussion forums.  The study identifies eight principal types of scholarly resources:

  • E-only journals
  • Reviews
  • Preprints and working papers
  • Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and annotated  content
  • Data
  • Blogs
  • Discussion forums
  • Professional and scholarly hubs

These categories provide a sort of abbreviated field manual to identifying different types of new model publications.  I might add a few more categories, such as collaborative commentary or peer-to-peer review (exemplified by projects that use CommentPress); scholarly wikis like OpenWetWare that enable open sharing of scholarly information; and research portals like NINES (which perhaps would be considered a “hub”).   The report offers fascinating examples of innovative publications, such as ejournals that publish articles as they are ready rather on a set schedule and a video journal that documents experimental methods in biology.   Since only a few examples of new model publications could fit into this brief report, ARL is making available brief descriptions of 206 resources that it considered to be  “original and scholarly works” via a publicly accessible database.

My favorite example of a new model publication: eBird, a project initiated by  the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audobon Society that enlists amateur and professional bird watchers to collect bird observation data.  Scientists then use this data to understand the “distribution and abundance” of birds.  Initially eBird ran into difficulty getting birders to participate, so they developed tools that allowed birders to get credit and feel part of a community, to “manage and maintain their lists online, to compare their observations with others’ observations.” I love the motto and mission of eBird—“Notice nature.”  I wonder if a similar collaborative research site could be set up for, say, the performing arts (, where audience members would document arts and humanities in the wild–plays, ballets, performance art, poetry readings, etc.

The ARL/Ithaka report also highlights some of the challenges faced by these new model publications, such as the conservatism of academic culture, the difficulty of getting scholars to participate in online forums, and finding ways to fund and sustain publications.  In  Interim Report: Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication, Diane Harley and her colleagues at the University of California Berkeley delve into some of these challenges.  Harley finds that although some scholars are interested in publishing their research as interactive multimedia, “(1) new forms must be perceived as having undergone rigorous peer review, (2) few untenured scholars are presenting such publications as part of their tenure cases, and (3) the mechanisms for evaluating new genres (e.g., nonlinear narratives and multimedia publications) may be prohibitive for reviewers in terms of time and inclination.” Humanities researchers are typically less concerned with the speed of publication than scientists and social scientists, but they do complain about journals’ unwillingness to include many high quality images and would like to link from their arguments to supporting primary source material. However, faculty are not aware of any easy-to-use tools or support that would enable them to author multimedia works and are therefore less likely to experiment with new forms.  Scholars in all fields included in the study do share their research with other scholars, typically through emails and other forms of personal communication, but many regard blogs as “a waste of time because they are not peer reviewed.”  Similarly, Ithaka’s 2006 Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation in Higher Education (published in 2008) found that “faculty decisions about where and how to publish the results of their research are principally based on the visibility within their field of a particular option,” not open access.

But academic conservatism shouldn’t keep us from imagining and experimenting with alternative approaches to scholarly publishing.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s “book-like-object” (blob) proposal, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, offers a bold and compelling vision of the future of academic publishing.  Fitzpatrick calls for academia to break out of its zombie-like adherence to (un)dead forms and proposes “peer-to-peer” review (as in Wikipedia), focusing on process rather than product (as in blogs), and engaging in networked conversation (as in CommentPress). (If references to zombies and blobs make you think Fitzpatrick’s stuff is fun to read as well as insightful, you’d be right.)

EndNote Sues Zotero

Normally I have trouble attracting faculty and grad students to workshops exploring research tools and scholarly communication issues, but they’ve been flocking to my workshops on Zotero, which they recognize as a tool that will help them work more productively.  Apparently Thomson Reuters, the maker of EndNote, has noticed the competitive threat posed by Zotero, since they have sued George Mason University, which produces Zotero, alleging that programmers reverse engineered EndNote so that they could convert proprietary EndNote .ens files into open Zotero .csl files.  Commentators more knowledgeable about the technical and legal details than I have found Thomson’s claims to be bogus.  My cynical read on this lawsuit is that EndNote saw a threat from a popular, powerful open source application and pursued legal action rather than competing by producing a better product.  As Hugh Cayless suggests, “This is an act of sheer desperation on the part of Thomson Reuters” and shows that Zotero has “scared your competitors enough to make them go running to Daddy, thus unequivocally validating your business model.”

The lawsuit seems to realize Yokai Benkler’s description of proprietary attempts to control information:

“In law, we see a continual tightening of the control that the owners of exclusive rights are given.  Copyrights are longer, apply to more uses, and are interpreted as reaching into every corner of valuable use. Trademarks are stronger and more aggressive. Patents have expanded to new domains and are given greater leeway. All these changes are skewing the institutional ecology in favor of business models and production practices that are based on exclusive proprietary claims; they are lobbied for by firms that collect large rents if these laws are expanded, followed, and enforced. Social trends in the past few years, however, are pushing in the opposite direction.”

Unfortunately, the lawsuit seems to be having a chilling effect that ultimately will, I think, hurt EndNote.  For instance, the developers of BibApp, “a publication-list manager and repository-populator,” decided not to import citation lists produced by EndNote, since “doing anything with their homegrown formats has been proven hazardous.” This lawsuit raises the crucial issue of whether researchers can move their data from one system to another.  Why would I want to choose a product that locks me in?  As Nature wrote in an editorial quoted by CHNM in its response to the lawsuit, “The virtues of interoperability and easy data-sharing among researchers are worth restating.”

Google Books Settlement

Google Books by Jon Wiley

Google Books by Jon Wiley

In the fall, Google settled with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers over Google Book Search, allowing academic libraries to subscribe to a full-text collection of millions of out-of-print but (possibly) in-copyright books.  (Google estimates that about 70% of published books fall into this category).  Individuals can also purchase access to books, and libraries will be given a single terminal that will provide free access to the collection.  On a pragmatic (and gluttonous) level, I think, Oh boy, this settlement will give me access to so much stuff.   But, like others, I am concerned about one company owning all of this information, see the Book Rights Registry as potentially anti-competitive, and wish that a Google victory in court had verified fair use principles (even if such a decision probably would have kept us in snippet view or limited preview for in-copyright materials).  Libraries have some legitimate concerns about access, privacy, intellectual freedom, equitable treatment, and terms of use.  Indeed, Harvard pulled out of the project over concerns about cost and accessibility.  As Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard Library and a prominent scholar of book history, wrote in the NY Review of Books, “To digitize collections and sell the product in ways that fail to guarantee wide access… would turn the Internet into an instrument for privatizing knowledge that belongs in the public sphere.” Although the settlement makes a provision for “non-consumptive research” (using the books without reading them) that seems to allow for text mining and other computational research, I worry that digital humanists and other scholars won’t have access to the data they need.  What if Google goes under, or goes evil? But the establishment of the Hathi Trust by several of Google Book’s academic library partners (and others) makes me feel a little better about access and preservation issues, and I noted that Hathi Trust will provide a corpus of 50,000 documents for the NEH’s Digging into the Data Challenge.  And as I argued in an earlier series of blog posts, I certainly do see how Google Books can transform research by providing access to so much information.

Around the same time (same day?) that the Google Books settlement was released, the Open Content Alliance (OCA) reached an important milestone, providing access to over a million books.  As its name suggests, the OCA makes scanned books openly available for reading, download, and analysis, and from my observations the quality of the digitization is better.  Although the OCA’s collection is smaller and it focuses on public domain materials, it offers a vital alternative to GB.  (Rice is a member of the Open Content Alliance.)

Next up in the series on digital humanities in 2008: my attempt to summarize recent developments in research.

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12 responses to “Digital Humanities in 2008, II: Scholarly Communication & Open Access

  1. Wonderful as always, Lisa! Thanks for putting these posts together.

  2. Pingback: Briefly Noted for February 25, 2009

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  7. Lisa, I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify the class action settlement process, something that many laypeople (and other legal professionals!) find very confusing. At the moment, there is a settlement on the table that the lawyers representing the Authors, Publishers, and Google have all worked very hard to negotiate. But, it by no means finalized. If you read the notice at Google Books Settlement you will see that first there has to be a hearing before the Judge decides whether or not to finalize the settlement.

    Anyone affected by the settlement has three options, one of which is to “Object.” Objections are taken very seriously by the attorneys involved as well as the Judge, because the more objections there are, the more likely the settlement will be dismantled. If you feel like fair use principles have been left out of the settlement, and you or anyone reading this blog are class members, by all means write a letter and file an objection. The letter must be postmarked by May 5, 2009, and follow the rules set out in the notice.

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  11. Lisa: thanks so much for this blog — I will be quoting it in a report we are submitting to the MLA about the Google settlement and other matters.

  12. Pingback: Teaching Carnival 3.3 « bomphiologia (verborum bombus)

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