Open Access and the Digital Humanities


The following is a guest post from Lindsay Thomas (@lindsaycthomas), PhD candidate in English at UC-Santa Barbara. -RR and AK

What does open access mean in relation to the Digital Humanities? There are many answers to this question: digital humanists support open access publishing; digital humanists want to share their data with one another; digital humanists themselves are open, social, and “nice.” Although this last assertion about the openness of DH tends to stick in my craw a bit – as Miriam Posner has pointed out, there are different stakes involved in “being nice” for different people – all of these things are great. It would be “nice” if more humanities scholars and disciplines adopted some of these practices.

It’s worth noting, however, that these understandings of open access – particularly the first two concerning access to published scholarship and access to data – are not necessarily home-grown. As Gary Hall, one of the founders of Open Humanities Press, has pointed out, Science, Technology, and Medicine (STMs) disciplines have tended to dominate how we understand open access so far. For these disciplines – and, by extension, for the open access movement as a whole – open access means, generally speaking, using the particular affordances of digital communication technologies to make data and scholarship public. It means following open data protocols to facilitate the easy sharing of data, and it means making scholarship freely available online so that it can more easily be accessed. When data and scholarship are made freely accessible in this way, they then become a public resource. And this is good, because then anyone – usually meaning other researchers – can use this data or scholarship to do whatever they want. In this equation, open access, enabled by digital communication technologies, makes scholarship public. This is, generally speaking, the understanding of open access that the Digital Humanities have also adopted.

However, what works for STM disciplines may not work for the humanities. As Hall emphasizes, “any attempt to develop [open access] in the humanities also needs to recognise that the humanities, in turn, are going to have an impact on open access. So…it’s not just the humanities that are going to be fundamentally transformed by [the open access] process,” but also that “open access is likely to undergo a significant transformation, too.” If the Digital Humanities are concerned with open access, perhaps then we need to consider in more detail what exactly open access means for us as, first and foremost, scholars in the humanities.

One way to begin might be to question the equation between openness, digital communication technologies, and public-ness outlined above. It feels strange to question this equation because its value seems self-evident. Of course making one’s scholarship public by making it freely available online is good for everyone. But my point here is not moral. Rather, it’s simply that making something freely available online does not necessarily guarantee that thing is public, or that it will be used as a public resource. This is true for a number of reasons, but what I want to briefly gesture towards here is the idea that we can see this fact as evidence of a larger rift between openness and public-ness. “Openness,” as we tend to understand the term in the Digital Humanities, might not necessarily involve “making public” as we are used to thinking about it.

Of course, many scholars in the humanities have thought a lot about this relationship between openness and public-ness. Clare Birchall, for example, has criticized the Obama Administration’s numerous open government initiatives on these grounds. These initiatives make certain governmental data sets freely available online and encourage users to use this data to develop “web applications,” figuring the development of these apps as an important aspect of public participation in governance. Of course, to see this activity as “public” involvement in governance is to limit the public to web developers. This not only leaves out huge swaths of the population who are not web developers; it also positions a population of people that is overwhelmingly white and male as representative of the American public at large. In this way, following Jodi Dean, Birchall argues that the kind of openness enabled by digital communications technologies actually works to fracture and further privatize any notion of the “public sphere.”

This example may seem disconnected from more immediate practical concerns about how to make scholarship in the Digital Humanities open and about what the value of such openness is. But what I’m suggesting is that such discussions about who and what constitute the public(s) we are interested in engaging should be at the heart of how we in the Digital Humanities think about open access. We should not strive to simply adopt models of open access that have worked in the sciences, in other words. Digital Humanities scholars are perhaps uniquely positioned to develop humanities-oriented models of openness, models that are based on the wide range of knowledge we develop as humanists. If we want to make our scholarship accessible – and if we are interested in seeing open access succeed on a broader scale in the humanities – we need to consider how this knowledge can change open access for the better.

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