The campaign for open access is complicated. How does one balance the costs of copy editing, marketing, printing, and other expenses of quality publishing with the fact that publicly funded research should be available to the public at little to no cost?
This is a topic Holly Brewer, University of Maryland Burke Chair of American Cultural and Intellectual History, Associate Professor of History, and Co-Chair of the Publishing, Access and Contract Terms (UMD PACT) working group, has become passionate about over the past decade. Costs to access academic publications have skyrocketed even as the internet offers people greater access to other, often dubiously sourced, information.
Brewer believes it’s crucial that scholars contribute their expertise to public debates and that everyone needs better access to the sources that underlie that expertise, whether they are scientific databases or letters and laws from centuries ago.
“People need to be able to access both scholarly articles and the data behind those articles and make their own judgments. Scholars need to stop assuming that people will believe them ‘because they are professors’ or indeed that people even have access to their work merely because they’ve published it. Instead, they need to help not only peers and students but members of the public discover and evaluate it. Say ‘Here’s the evidence: see it for yourselves.’” says Brewer.
Slavery, Law, and Power: Open access to sources
Brewer’s data project, Slavery, Law and Power (SLP), embodies many of these ideas. SLP makes accessible disparate sources to explain the long history of slavery and its connection to struggles over power in early America, particularly in the colonies that would become the United States. SLP traces the rise of the slave trade back to the early English empire alongside parallel struggles between monarchical power and early democratic institutions and ideals.
The project provides access to crucial sources from the past that allow readers to examine the same information scholars do and make their own assessments. It also encourages other scholars to share their research. Brewer began the SLP project because she understood that many of the primary sources and documents that expose debates and struggles over slavery and power—manuscripts like the Barbados Slave Code and John Locke’s plan to revise Virginia’s Constitution in 1698—are buried in archives, difficult to read due to old handwriting, and scattered across geographically remote institutions. If scanned copies of documents are available, they are often hidden behind paywalls. Without access to the many and varied primary sources, it is much harder to see how the structures of power connect.
Siloing research leads to misinformation
In creating access to these documents, Brewer works to combat the spread of misinformation—a problem partially caused by the siloing of academic research and scholarly wisdom.
“It’s actually a bit frightening. Just at the point when careful analysis is crucial on a whole range of issues, the general public cannot even read the work that most scholars produce,” said Brewer. “If we hide our work behind paywalls, people won’t find it, let alone read it. And if they can’t find it and can’t read it, they won’t believe it.” She adds, “It’s also a problem because especially at public universities like UMD, our scholarship is funded partly by the public. It should be accessible.”
This siloing causes academic scholarship to be devalued at a time when it is critical that the general public has access to accurate information. Important decisions— information on climate change, how public policies might contribute to (or undermine) the welfare of marginalized groups, or understanding the role, purpose and impact of court decisions—depend on access to accurate information. Inaccessible scholarly work only exacerbates the spread of misinformation.
Helping her colleagues understand the costs
Brewer hopes her championing of open access and producing quality, widely available scholarship will help break down access barriers. So far, UMD PACT has mainly focused on negotiating better deals with major publishers and providing free access to almost-final versions of scholarly articles of UMD faculty. Brewer, through PACT, is excited to push to increase awareness about open and cheaper access for scholarly publications. She hopes to encourage colleagues to leverage their positions on journal editorial boards and as researchers to discourage for-profit publishers from price-gouging and to negotiate partial or full open access for important scholarship. She plans to extend its work to issues surrounding open-access to data and sources, issues, as is clear from her Slavery, Law and Power project, that are close to her heart.
Read Brewer’s recent academic articles:
Slavery, Sovereignty, and ‘Inheritable Blood: Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery
Creating a Common Law of Slavery for England and its New World Empire
Photo credit: John T. Consoli/University of Maryland