Opening the Humanities Part 2: Contexts

In 1813, Thomas Jefferson declared in a letter to Isaac McPherson:

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature….”

“Sharing,” by Josh Harper

Unlike, say, a diamond bracelet, an idea can be freely given to others without diminishing its value for the person who “owns” it–indeed, its value only increases as it spreads. While Jefferson believed that the creators of inventions could not claim permanent, natural rights over them, he acknowledged that society could grant the right to profit from them in order to foster innovation (which, as Chris Kelty notes, Jefferson termed the “the embarrassment of an exclusive patent,” suggesting his discomfort). He cautioned that intellectual property rights may actually endanger innovation by granting monopolies, should exist only long enough to spawn innovation, should be governed by rules limiting their application, and should be differentiated according to what benefit they convey to the public (Boyle, The Public Domain).

Jefferson’s letter raises fundamental questions: what social functions do intellectual property rights play? How can we best encourage the sharing of ideas and the progress of knowledge? In this post, the second in my series on the open humanities, I will explore legal and cultural contexts, focusing on the US.

The view that intellectual property rights are granted to encourage innovation is reflected in Article 1, Section 8  of the US Constitution: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Note that that the Constitution describes both the purpose of copyright–”To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”–and places limits upon it. Copyright aims to provide an incentive (a limited monopoly) for creators to share their work so that others may make use of it and build upon it. This incentive is balanced by limits, so that after a period of time the work falls into the public domain. The 1790 Copyright Act set the copyright term at 14 years, with the right to renew for another 14 years. Now, after the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the copyright term has exploded to 70 years after the death of the author. The original intention to encourage the progress of public knowledge seems to have fallen aside in the interest of protecting commercial interests such as Disney’s monopoly over Mickey Mouse.

Expansion of U.S. copyright law (assuming authors create their works 35 years prior to their death) (Wikipedia)

Expansion of U.S. copyright law (assuming authors create their works 35 years prior to their death) (Wikipedia)

With most academic work, the ability to secure a monopoly over one’s ideas is not the primary incentive for sharing. Rather, most academics publish scholarly works in order to make a visible contribution to the scholarly conversation, build their scholarly reputation, and ultimately secure tenure or promotion. Typically researchers do not receive monetary compensation for publishing journal articles; the reward comes in disseminating their research. As Peter Suber suggests, one factor that makes open access more complicated in the humanities is that authors of monographs often expect to receive royalties. However, as Paul Courant points out, the monetary rewards tend to be small; the author of a moderately successful manuscript selling 1000 copies might expect to make less than $4000, and “for many monographs, lifetime royalties are zero or close to it.” As Courant suggests, “The big financial payoff to the author of the great majority of scholarly books is not the royalties but the visibility (and hence the salary and working conditions) of the author in the academic labor market.” If authors aim to contribute to the scholarly conversation and heighten their visibility, it makes sense for them to remove barriers to their work (although they also have an incentive to publish with the top journals or publishers).

Open access facilitates the sharing of scholarly knowledge. Peter Suber, a philosopher and respected advocate for open access, offers a simple definition: “Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” Because such literature is digital and available online, distributing it costs almost nothing, and it can be accessed by anyone with an Internet connection. The lack of most restrictions means that the literature could be accessed and mined, which could open up new insights. But creators can put into place some restrictions over open works. For example, they can adopt a Creative Commons license and specify whether the work can be modified and/or used commercially, as well as whether the work must be attributed (CC-BY) and/or whether new versions of the work must be licensed under the same terms (share and share alike). CC-BY upholds the scholarly practice of acknowledging sources (see Bethany Nowviskie’s “why, oh why, CC-BY?” for a smart discussion of the rationale for adopting this license). There are two principal means of disseminating open access scholarly work: green, through depositing works in disciplinary repositories (like arXiv) or institutional repositories (like DSpace@MIT), and gold, through publishing open journals and monographs. Note that many publishers allow scholars to self archive work in repositories; visit SHERPA RoMEO to access publisher policies.

Unfortunately, the humanities seem to be behind the sciences in practicing openness. As Wikipedia explains, the open science movement aims to enlarge access to research, data, and publications, speed up scholarly communication, facilitate collaboration, and improve the sharing and building of knowledge, whether through open lab notebooks, open data, or open access to scholarly literature. There isn’t even a Wikipedia page for open humanities (let’s get to work!). The Directory of Open Access and Hybrid Journals lists nearly 3000 journals in the sciences as opposed to a little over 1300 in the arts & humanities. Much of the rhetoric around openness focuses on science; as a rough measure, there are approximately 973,000 Google results for “open science” versus around 38,000 for “open humanities”.

In a 2004 essay, Peter Suber pointed to a number of reasons why the humanities have been more reluctant to embrace openness than the sciences, including the greater availability of public funding for scientific research (and publishing fees), a deeper sense of a cost crisis with science journals, the significance of pre-print repositories in the sciences, the importance of monographs in the humanities, and the greater public pressure for open access to science. Updating Suber’s analysis eight years later, Gary Daught suggests that the time may be ripe for efforts to promote openness in the humanities. He notes that the price inflation of humanities journals has become a greater concern and that open source tools such as Open Journal Systems have brought down publishing costs. Perhaps most importantly, as scholars become more accustomed to the speed, convenience and openness of online communication, they may more expect that research is easily accessible.

Indeed, I’ve identified a number of open humanities projects, mainly in the digital humanities. Openness in the humanities can take many forms, including:

While these different ways of categorizing openness are helpful, I agree with Clint Lalonde (riffing on Gardner Campbell) that “open is an attitude”– not only being willing to share resources, but also to work in such a way that others can observe, learn and offer to help. In my next post, I’ll provide a number of examples of open humanities projects and initiatives.

Of course, open humanities projects aren’t necessarily focused on digital humanities; note, for instance, publishing initiatives such as Open Humanities Press. With digital humanities, we often see the intersection of humanistic values and what I’ll call Web values. Driven by a desire to make it easier for scientists to share their data and collaborate, Tim Berners-Lee created the foundations of the Web. Rather than being a proprietary system, the Web is built upon open protocols, standards and design principles. The success of the Web comes from the way that it connects people to each other, information, and experiences, enabling them to share ideas, converse with each other, and explore and interact with information. Hence Berners-Lee’s message (appropriately delivered via Twitter) at the 2012 Summer Olympics: “this is for everyone.” What would it take to say the same about humanities scholarship and educational resources?

[Note: This post expands on a presentation I gave at WPI’s Digital Humanities Symposium in November.]

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