Open Source Scholarship, and Why History Should Be Open Source

In June 2006 the late Roy Rosenzweig published an article entitled “Can History be Open Source?  Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” in the Journal of American History.  Open source models like Wikipedia, Rosenzweig suggests, might offer alternatives to the historian’s highly individualistic and possessive craft.  The triumph of Wikipedia indicates the thirst for free and accessible information people have. The methods and approaches that have characterized Wikipedia’s success raises questions about how we produce, share, and debate scholarly work.

Open source in the technical sense means offering software and code available for free, allowing users to explore, extend, debug, or tweak in a highly collaborative atmosphere (open access refers to the principle of making research freely available; for my purposes I tend to think of the two together and often refer to them interchangeably - for instance, offering the raw XML of a transcribed newspaper article on my digital history project is both open source and open access by providing access to my research and access to the data and encoding behind documents).  Open source began with Richard Stallman, who voiced the idea of making computer code freely available for all to use and edit as long as they shared changes to the software.  In his wake came Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, and Brian Behlendorf, the developer of the free web server package Apache.

Although much of open source refers to software development, the principle has entered academic debates over the nature of historical research and scholarship.  Should historical scholarship be free?  Do historians have an obligation to reach scholarly and nonscholarly audiences alike?  Can open source publishing achieve that goal?  The advantages are numerous.  Open source historical work becomes more visible, can be retrieved easily, reach broader audiences, and have a greater impact.  Most junior scholars will be lucky to have 100 copies of their book purchased by libraries worldwide (try searching a newly published monograph on WorldCat and see what comes up).  On the web, however, digital scholarship has the potential of reaching thousands of readers in search of historical material.  We can also track usage on websites and determine what people are reading and using in digital projects, a task that cannot be done with a printed book (how many readers out there have unread books sitting on their shelves?  The purchase of a book doesn’t necessarily mean the information within is being distributed as the author would like).  It is in the interest of professional historians to provide ungated, open access to their work, because doing so increases readership and recognition.  Open access means instantaneous access to research, the ability to correct errors almost immediately, and a radical democratization of knowledge production.

Does this mean we will write free, open source historical scholarship?  Bill Turkel is pioneering this effort with the publication of The Programming Historian, an open-access introduction to programming for historians with little prior programming experience.  There are some real challenges for an open access model, the least of which being the business models currently in place among scholarly societies.  The challenge for them is that there would be little use for large, subscription-based archives like JSTOR if scholarship and research is released online for free.  However, solutions exist for fixing such a problem (as Rosenzweig outlines).  Historians and scholarly societies should start looking at these issues and developing ideas and business models that will work for open access archives, scholarship, and publishing.  If our purpose is to share with others what we know and have learn about the past, then democratic access to scholarship should be our ultimate goal as historians.  Digital technology gives us the tools to rethink the presentation and dissemination of historical scholarship.  Although challenges and questions exist, that should not deter historians from embracing open source historical scholarship and sharing knowledge.  “If historians believe that what is available free on the Web is low quality,” Rosenzweig writes, “then we have a reponsiblity to make better information sources available online.”

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Jason Heppler is a digital history developer living in Omaha. More »

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