I have written here and elsewhere on the reasons I decided to launch the Russian History Blog. One reason is a commitment to open access scholarship–to make the products of our scholarly research freely available to the general public. Most academic journals sit behind the pay walls of JSTOR, Project Muse, and the myriad other non-profit and for profit academic databases. As such, they are virtually invisible in the internet age, when not only students and the general public but also policy and opinion makers rarely venture beyond what is quickly and freely available online. I was shocked to read recently that JSTOR turns away 150 million attempts to access articles each year. Clearly, our scholarship would have a reading audience if only we would make it available!
We can talk all day about how the economics of academic publishing require that we use these closed databases, but I would rather see us talk about how we can change the economics. The future of a great many universities as research institutions may depend on it. In an era in which political figures from state legislators to the President of the United States are bringing pressure on universities to control costs and prove their value, it is more important than ever that a wider populace see the value of the university research mission. We can huff and holler when devastating cuts are visited upon the Department of Education’s Title VI, a real life blood for undergraduate and graduate training in area studies. If legislators and the general public cannot see the end product of that support for the study of places like Russia and Eurasian, can we be surprised that these fields are so undervalued? Furthermore, given that nearly all university research is supported to some degree by federal and state tax dollars, one could even say that open access to our research results is something that we owe to the general public.
These points are driven home in a recent piece in The Atlantic online, based on the author’s inability to access articles on JSTOR without paying exorbitant fees. The article should remind us (or perhaps teach some of us for the first time) of the absurdity of much of our academic publication and distribution process.
Universities that created this academic content for free must pay to read it. Step back even further. The public — which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes that support our higher education system — has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs. Newspapers and think tanks, which could help extend research into the public sphere, are denied free access to the material.
Granted, the author tells us little that the open access movement has not been saying for some time. However, the fact that a piece like this appears in a broadly read online magazine should show us that it is not an issue of parochial interest to a few academics. The educated public is paying attention.
Academic blogging in general and the Russian History Blog in particular is nothing more than a start, but it does show some of the possibilities of open access publishing. We continue to see good readership numbers here and at the moment I write, Russian History Blog falls within the first page of results in a Google search of “Russian history”. As I have urged before and as I urge again, Russian historians should think about blogging whether individually or in groups as we do here at Russian History Blog. I hope to see others join us on this side of the pay wall.