The Economics of Open Access

“Establishing open access … requires the active commitment of each and every individual producer of scientific knowledge and holder of cultural heritage.”
Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities

In my last post, I talked about Open Access and the Library of Congress, which is an essential resource for my work. Today, I explain my goals and the challenges I face as I work to develop a more robust Open Access model for the Isis Bibliography.

I have two main reasons for advocating Open Access: to provide a tool for scholars in areas where resources are more scarce, especially those people outside of the North American-Western European sphere; and to bring the Bibliography in line with the ideals of scholarship as a public service, open to all.

When I started my term as editor of the Isis Bibliography in 2002, people could access it in only two ways: either via a personal subscription to Isis when one joined the History of Science Society, or by visiting a library that subscribed to either the print journal or the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine database (HSTM).

The problem is that the distribution in these forms is very small. Only about 8 percent of Isis subscriptions go scholars and libraries outside of Europe and North America. More disappointing, only 9 institutions in total (out of 113) have subscriptions to the database in these areas of the world. In other words, international access to the Bibliography is tiny.

A few years ago, the HSS and OCLC agreed to make the Isis data public on the OCLC’s WorldCat.org service. Although this interface has many limitations, and it is not a substitute for the HSTM database, it serves the wider international community as never before. The HSS also now offers free PDF downloads of the annual bibliographies.

Open Access must be sustainable, however, which means that economics plays a major role. In order to do it responsibly, we must have institutional support that will not decline. The Isis Bibliography relies on several institutions: the History of Science Society, whose membership dues help pay salary and operation costs; the University of Oklahoma, where I work and which provides infrastructure support and staff salary; the University of Chicago Press, which publishes the journal Isis; EBSCO, which hosts the subscription service; and OCLC, with its WorldCat.org service.

As I begin building a new Open Access platform, offering the bibliographical records as a linked open dataset, other institutions will be involved as well, especially the University of Melbourne’s eScholarship Research Centre.

As long as these institutions recognize the importance of the public scholarship model and the real intellectual benefits of sharing this work widely, the modest costs of sustaining the Bibliography can be met easily. Scholars must continue to support their academic societies that make public projects like this possible. Public universities must continue to put their money behind efforts directed toward public benefit. And publishers of journals and database resources must be willing to allow these kinds of alternative venues for distribution.

Readers interested in the economics of Open Access in the field of history should see the last chapter of Roy Rosenzweig’s Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age (Columbia University Press, 2011).

Incidentally, the sixth annual International Open Access Week begins on October 17.

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