Tag Archives: open access

Clio, Eight Years On

Way back in 2005 (about 4o Internet years), I taught our intro to digital history for graduate students, the first of two required courses for our PhD students and these days a requirement for our MA students in Art History. Then, for a variety of reasons having mostly to do with a sojourn in administration, I didn’t teach the course again until this semester.

As you might imagine, when I looked at my syllabus from 2005 for inspiration, all I could do was laugh. I think I ended up using something like 20% of the readings from 2005. Many of the weekly topics were the same, but the flood of writing about digital history/humanities, and the many new tools, especially computational tools, available to us now meant that I had to substantially rethink my approach to the course. We’ve wrapped up for the semester and as I sit down to start grading my students’ final projects next week, I’ll be looking at a whole lot of work that I never could have imagined in 2005.

To be sure, much of what my students were interested in hasn’t changed a lot. Their questions as historians and art historians in 2013 are very similar to the questions they were asking in 2005. The big difference is the tools available to them for answering those questions.

And of those tools and/or approaches to digital historical/art historical analysis that really stand out are text analysis, especially topic modeling with tools like Mallet, and geographic analysis with GIS tools such as ArcGIS. In both cases, the students using these tools have engaged in what we’re now calling “distant reading” of large volumes of information and then using one or both of tools like Mallet and ArcGIS to analyze their data and then display their findings. I don’t know if anyone even used the term “distant reading” in 2005. I know I didn’t.

Tools that would allow the distant reading of large corpora of historical sources certainly existed in 2005, but the bar to entry was so high that no one in our department, and I suspect in any history department, was incorporating these sorts of tools into their teaching. These days, however, the bar to entry has dropped substantially and so a number of my students were able to do some pretty sophisticated work in topic modeling and geographic analysis.

The other thing that makes this sort of work possible, of course, is the mass digitization of sources for the students to then use these tools on. Distant reading depends on these corpora and at least for teaching we can’t ask our students to do the work without easy access to the sources they need. Which is why we need to keep advocating for open access to digitized historical sources.

Finally, few of my students would have been able to do the work they did without the technological support and advice of a couple of the more advanced students in the room who showed up on campus this fall already reasonably adept with these tools. Had they not been available (and so willing) to support their colleagues in the course, the results I am looking at now would have been much less diverse.

For me, the big result is that before I teach the course again (I sure hope I won’t wait another eight years) I need to rethink the overall structure of the syllabus. This time around I took the existing structure and just plugged in new topics and readings. And while that worked well enough, it didn’t work well enough for me. Next time around I’m going to restructure the course more specifically around four or five key topics in digital history/art history and leave it up to the students to fill in around the margins of those topics. That way we’ll have more time to do more sophisticated work on fewer things.

What those things are will be a function of how long a hiatus I take between this semester and the next time I teach the course.

The AHA and Open Access Scholarship

Since my earlier post today, the debate over what the Twitterverse is now calling #ahagate has heated up rather than cooled down. Former American Historical Association president William Cronon has weighed in, as has the Harvard University Press. I’ve spent a good part of my Friday afternoon reading through the various responses on both sides of the debate about the AHA’s statement on embargoing dissertations and feel as though I’ve gained a much clearer understanding of the issues at play.

Having said that, I stand by my criticism of the AHA statement in my previous post. In fact, I feel even more strongly about that criticism, having read back through the history of the AHA’s position on open access scholarship. Before I explain why my feelings have gotten stronger rather than more forgiving, I want to stipulate one thing: I agree with the AHA that authors ought to have control over the ways in which their work is published, and so I agree that PhD students should be able to decide how their dissertations are published, with one caveat.

First, my caveat on authorial control. There is a reasonable question to be asked whether or not universities, especially state universities that are funded by the taxpayers, have the right to decide how doctoral dissertations will be published and disseminated. I can make a strong argument for the fact that dissertations written at state-funded universities can be considered public property, given that the university (i.e., the taxpayers) provides a venue, a faculty, a library, an Internet connection, and in many, many cases, multiple years of scholarship funding to doctoral students. With all of that financial investment in the dissertation, why should dissertation authors be able to lock their work away for some number of years? [For a dissent from this position, see Adam Crymble’s blog post from July 23.]

If a state legislature were to mandate digital publication of dissertations, prospective doctoral students would of course need full disclosure prior to enrollment that their work would be published online upon completion. Then they could decide, in advance, whether to enroll at a university imposing such a requirement. Don’t agree with that requirement? Enroll somewhere else. While some might see this as in infringement on academic freedom, I do not, just as I do not see it as an infringement on academic freedom when the NIH demands that federally funded medical research be made available to the public.

Now to my strong disagreement with the gist of the AHA statement that launched so many tweets and blog posts. As I wrote earlier today, I see that AHA position on this issue as part of a continuum of opinion on open access scholarship that has ranged from temporizing to outright opposition. Implying, as the statement on dissertation access does, that making one’s dissertation available online risks ultimate failure in the race to tenure and promotion, the AHA statement on this issue fits nicely into that tradition of opposition to open access. After all, if enough PhD students can be frightened into embargoing their work, then academic presses won’t have to worry that potential readers might have already read the dissertation and so will take a pass on the book. But, as Rebecca Rosen writes at TheAtlantic.com, it’s not at all clear that academic press editors are worried about the digital publication of dissertations.

Given that academic journal editors are, as a group, not that worried about digital dissertations, and that the entire issue as framed by the AHA is only relevant to those few PhD students who get tenure track jobs at R1 universities, what’s really going on here?

The answer, it seems to me, is that for the past eight years the AHA has vacillated between temporizing over and outright opposition to open access scholarship. Last September, the AHA offered a statement on open access journal publishing in which the association expressed significant concern about the implications of open access for the field and for scholarly associations like the AHA. Dan Cohen’s thoughtful response to that AHA statement offers a succinct summary of the AHA’s shifting back and forth on the issue. Similarly, in his last article for Perspectives, Rob Townsend explains, with data, what the financial impact of the AHA’s experiments with open access has been.

As Dan points out, the main concern in both the AHA statement and in Townsend’s essay  was on the economics of the American Historical Review. As Townsend put it, “the AHA has yet to find a happy balance between our revenue needs and our desire to reach the widest possible audience.” And so we get to the nub of the problem. As a membership organization, the AHA derives most of its operating income from two sources — individual and institutional memberships and the revenue (subscriptions and advertising) from AHR. Without that journal revenue, the association might just be in serious financial trouble.

So, yes, I think it’s true that the AHA Council was trying to do the right thing. And yes, I think that, with my one possible caveat, PhD students ought to be able to decide when and how to publish their dissertations. But, yes, I also think this statement on dissertation publication, like so many others from the AHA over the years, is both a defense of a financial model that the association can’t find alternatives to and a defense of a way of life that is fast fading from the academic earth.

As AHR editor Robert Schneider put it in a panel discussion on the future of the academic journal at this year’s annual meeting in New Orleans, peer reviewed journals are “the embodiment of tradition.” If that doesn’t sum it up, I don’t know what does.

[For more on this issue, see this web collection.]

The Rear Guard Makes Its Stand

Having been in the mountains and off the grid for a few days I missed the publication of this statement by the American Historical Association when it first came out on July 22. Now that I’m catching up on what I’ve missed, all I can do is avert my gaze from yet another rear guard action by the AHA.

Over the years I’ve watched the AHA and many of its members struggle to come to grips with the realities of the digital revolution. Way back in 2008 (almost a century in Internet years), I wrote a series of posts I called “The Future of the AHA” in which I castigated the Association for making this assertion in a report on the future of the AHA:

“Thus it is incumbent on the AHA to both understand and utilize all the cutting-edge possibilities of these new technologies, while transferring its traditional role as gatekeeper and authority for the discipline to this new medium.”

At the time I argued that for the AHA to claim some sort of gatekeeper role on the Internet was evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of how the open exchange of information works online. This new report by the AHA Council urging universities to embargo the digital publication of new history dissertations unless the author chooses otherwise is, to my mind, of a piece with that earlier position, because it is but one more attempt to hold onto a series of past practices that are increasingly irrelevant in the modern scholarly landscape.

That portion of the Internet that is about the exchange of ideas and information functions best when access to that information is free, open access, and timely. Urging universities to embargo the digital publication of dissertations — and through such urging helping to frighten PhD students into keeping their dissertations behind a wall of silence — undermines all three of these pillars of scholarly exchange in the world we live in, not the idealized past described in the AHA statement, where dissertations were circulated by hand. Were I a doctoral student today, this bit of the larger statement might send chills down my spine:

Presumably, online readers will become familiar with an author’s particular argument, methodology, and archival sources, and will feel no need to buy the book once it is available.  As a result, students who must post their dissertations online immediately after they receive their degree can find themselves at a serious disadvantage in their effort to get their first book published…

If those chills I feel turn into actual fear, I might just follow the implied advice here, despite the vagueness and the evidence-thin assertions, and embargo my dissertation so that no one out there in Internet-land will have any access to my ideas for, say, six years — another whole century in Internet years. By the time my books comes out, I’ll be largely irrelevant to the discussion on my topic of interest, but so what? I’ll have a book from a scholarly press and will have a shot at tenure!

Imagine a biologist taking such a position? Or a physicist? Or a nuclear engineer? Or an economist?

Has the AHA heard, perhaps of the Public Library of Science (PLOS), whose mission is to “accelerate progress in science and medicine” through the rapid and open access publication of new findings? Or, perhaps, the Social Science Research Network, whose 179,000 authors have uploaded more than 380,000 papers, which have been downloaded more than 50 million times, mostly for free?

This latest salvo by the AHA’s rear guard can only be seen as another example of what is an essential hostility to open access scholarship.

All I can say is, good luck with that.

[For more on this issue, see this web collection.]

Hello DHNow

On Wednesday, the first of the four forthcoming PressForward publications launched: Digital Humanities Now. This publication is a re-launch of an older attempt to aggregate what digital humanists were discussing in real time…the prior version was focused primarily on Twitter feeds and for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t a huge fan.

My criticism at the time was that there was too much posting of “re-tweets” and so a lot of interesting stuff was getting lost under the weight of the most tweeted items. [You can see an early 2010 version here, but need to realize that the WayBack Machine didn’t capture the page formatting.] The new version of the publication has not only solved that older problem, but has also substantially upgraded what is on offer.

Now there are “editors’ picks,” which are selections from many hundreds of blogs concerned with the digital humanities. There are categorized news items, and a “top ten tweet” list. In addition, you can see the entire “river” of digital humanities information flowing into the site’s back end and can sign up to join the community of digital humanists whose content is being considered for publication. These enhancements, in my view, make Digital Humanities Now a real go to site for anyone interested in the field.

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s more than a little possible that I’m biased in favor of this project for three reasons. First, I work at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, which is home base for the project. Second, I am one of three executive editors of another PressForward publication, Global Perspectives on Digital History. Third, I’ve completely lost control of my RSS feeds of late and so Digital Humanities Now is like a lifeline being thrown to a drowning man.

Here’s what neither Digital Humanities Now nor Global Perspectives on Digital History is going to solve: neither publication is going to eliminate the need for human intervention in the process. Where the original version of Digital Humanities Now was intended, at least in part, to be an algorithm-driven publication requiring little to no human intervention, these new publications will continue to require a fair amount of editorial effort. We still need/want someone to sort through the river of content flowing into the sites to select “editors’ picks” or “top ten tweets” for us, because that means we can be more efficient in our reviewing of the information. It’s possible to imagine an algorithm that will learn from what the editors on the back end are doing, eventually mitigating the need for quite so much human intervention, but (a) we are a ways off from that, and (b) it will be a long time before an algorithm can decide on an editors’ pick. That kind of choosing is much more complex and driven by intangibles that algorithms still aren’t very good at.

Until the machines get smarter, humans will still have an important role to play in the publication of digital content online (good news for me!), but PressForward and other similar projects bode well for a future where the river gets wider and deeper and struggling digital humanists will need platforms like these to help sift through all that content for them.