Open Access Research – The Benefits and Obligations for Digital Historians.

Trevor Owens writes a cautionary tale about the David Abraham Affair where this former historian’s work was discredited due to inconsistencies in his footnotes. Owens asks “when it takes 15 seconds instead of 15 hours to fact check a source do we think historians will start to write differently, or otherwise change how they do their work?”

I don’t think so. My training in history at Carleton has instructed me to keep rough copies of my notes and be rigorous in citing references. I complete a paper with the expectation that it may be checked and also with the knowledge that the professors I am submitting work to are specialists and know the area I am writing about much better than I do. However, I do make errors and find formatting footnotes to be tedious. Much more importantly, footnotes and bibliographies are important pieces of work themselves. Using smart bibliographies as Owens recommends is not only more efficient for the historian writer, it offers the ability to share this work with others more easily.

Ian Milligan describes the impact of SSHRC’S Research Data Archiving Policy which mandates that work funded by SSHRC must be made available for use by the public who paid for it. This includes research data. This is a sensible directive given that researchers can do their work more effectively by building on the credible work of other researchers rather than starting from scratch. It also provides an overall benefit to historians. Even with the vast amount of electronic data, there is still a huge amount of information that is not available digitally. Potentially a historian’s research data may exist no where else on the Internet and making it available on-line allows other historians to use knowledge that may previously had been difficult to access. Also, as historians benefit from governments providing more Open Data, so we should reciprocate by keeping our research data open too, as long as it is ethical to do so.

In her blog entry “Generous Thinking: Introduction” Kathleen Fitzgerald notes that when universities train students to be critical thinkers, students often miss what the author they are reading is trying to communicate. More Generous Thinking is needed in order to properly study at university. Fitzgerald’s idea of Generous Thinking also applies to the unspoken contract between the Digital Historian who opens their notebook to the public and the public who reads it. By using an Open Notebook, as described by W. Caleb McDaniel, the Digital Historian benefits when a member of the public reviews their work and generously offers additional related material or alerts the historian to an error, something that would save them a great deal of time compared to finding the error during publication. However, if the public is unduly critical of the historian’s open notebook, it discourages historians from posting further work. Open Notebook history is most useful when it is part of an active project, but that also requires the most fortitude from the historian to keep it open as ideas develop and change in front of a virtual audience.

Sheila Brennan’s blog entry “My Digital Publishing Update: Nothing” describes the pitfalls of publishing a digital first project with editors used to print projects. The Digital Historian, like anyone else delivering a project, needs to be aware of the specifications of what will be produced. If the outcome of a project is to, for example, produce an article for a journal, the project should be designed to create a deliverable that matches that outcome.

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