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Should Historical Scholarship be Free?


February 3, 2015 by Alexandra Troxell

Chapter 7 of Roy Rosenzweig’s Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age really struck a chord with me. The question of pricing on scholarly research is something highly discussed in an academic setting, but vitally important far beyond academia. As Rosenzweig points out on page 118, “professional historians routinely complain that their students and neighbors pick up ‘junk’ on the Internet, but the don’t adequately consider that the best online scholarship is often only available to paying subscribers.” This immense barrier to entry into the world of high quality, peer-reviewed scholarship creates what he calls the “secondary digital divide” and adversely affects a broad range of people and organizations. Non-profit organizations, students of all levels, and even teachers suffer from the prohibitive costs attached to this research. But how would reducing the cost of subscription, or even making it free, affect the business and budget of the organizations putting together these publications?

Many critics of open-access publication say that organizations won’t make any money if they don’t charge for subscriptions. While it’s true that taking away the cost of subscriptions will inevitably damage the bottom line, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. First off, much historical research is conducted under the financial support of the government. Should government support research not belong to the public that funded it? Not to mention, many of the organizations in question make money not solely from subscriptions but from society membership. Many scholars who are members of these professional organizations would have electronic access to the organization’s publication through their sponsoring institution regardless of their personal membership status. Therefore, the creation of a free subscription should not affect their interest in membership. Besides that, there are several options and compromises available in the open-access realm.

Self-archiving is the first option Rosenzweig lists. This included authors storing or publishing copies of their own articles- whether it be in an institutional repository or archive or on a personal website. This option is a simple work around, but some would argue it places undue burden on the author. Is it the job of the author to make sure his work is accessible? I would hope that authors putting that much work into a piece would want to ensure accessibility, but then what is the role of the publisher/publication at all? And without the publisher, how will the peer-review process work? Without peer-review, the research loses an important facet of its scholarly nature.

Another option is charging the author instead of the reader. My instinct reaction is to be overwhelmingly opposed to this option as it seems outrageous for an author to put in so much work to not only go unpaid, but actually have to pay for inclusion. It would place a massive barrier to entry on young or new scholars. However, upon thinking about this option further, I think it may have some reasonable possibilities. For example, it seems like it should be possible for new grant systems to be set up to sponsor authors works for inclusion in publications. It seems like it would be much easier to give one lump grant to a single author to publish a work than to give a multitude of institutions grants to gain access to the work. This also seems to play into the claim that many institutions make that they have already paid for the scholarship through professors’ salaries, and therefore should not have to pay again for a subscription fee. Grants for publishing could possibly go through sponsoring institutions. It would be an extra expense, but it would ultimately lower the necessary budget of the library for subscription costs.

Two other options are delayed and/or partial access. Delayed access is highly relevant for scientific or medical journals. The idea being that many institutions and individuals will still be interested in subscribing for instant access to new research and discoveries, while larger public awareness can come later. However, historical research is generally not so time sensitive. There would likely be little incentive to have instant access to many of the articles in question. Partial access, however, holds more potential in the field. The suggestion is that peer-reviewed articles be made available electronically through open-access, while other parts of the journal, editorials, reviews, etc., be left only for subscribers. This would allow easy access to research for the general public while maintaining a level of subscription incentive for professionals and institutions who would still be interested in the other portions of the journal.

A fifth option is electronic-only journals. This option significantly reduces the publishing costs of journals. It does not, however, reduce the overall operating costs or salaries of employees. E-Journals should unquestionably be cheaper than print journals, but does the printing cost really justify a cost-less subscription? In the digital age, I think it makes sense to consider the cost benefit of online only resources, but I don’t think I’m convinced it justifies free access completely.

The last suggestion made in Clio Wired is for a new kind of cooperation between publishing organizations and libraries/subscribing institutions. Libraries are constantly battling budgets and suffering consistently from exorbitant subscription costs. In the proposed model, publishers would give discounted rates to libraries in exchange for promises of long term support to their organization. I think this option is very reasonable and alleviates a significant problem in the current price structure of academic journals. It does not, however, help a large portion of the greater public audience. Helping provide access to universities and libraries is important, but what about those outside the academic setting? What about private citizens trying to do personal research? Small local libraries seldom subscribe to organizations like the ones in question, so what about their constituents? Don’t they deserve access?

It seems to me that the solution to the financial issues around open-access is not a quick fix. It will likely look differently for different organizations and institutions, and it will likely be a combination of the options listed above and ones not thought of here rather than one option to fix it all. It is a complicated problem that will merit a complicated solution, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided. As stated on page 123, “the benefits of broad and democratic access to scholarship — benefits that are within our grasp in a digital era — are much too great to simply continue business as usual.”


  1. nsakas1 says:

    You touch on something I found was not given enough consideration in this chapter Alex, and that is what does the person do that is not a historian, student, or librarian. As you have demonstrated the potential solutions to the question, should historical scholarship be free?, only address those who it is assumed have some form of existing access to online scholarly research. The argument has been made that most online resources are unreliable because anyone can produce them. However, if everyone does not have the same access to historical scholarship than expecting more from the general public is slightly unreasonable. I am not saying that historical scholarship should be free, but a solution that does not involve looking at access for the general public is missing the mark.

  2. Susan Prillaman says:

    You provide an excellent summation of the issues and alternatives associated with democratization of scholarship. While I don’t hold the opinion that all scholarship should be provided at no cost, I believe that more material could be, and any that is subsidized by my federal taxes certainly should be made available.

    I particularly like your concluding paragraph which counteracts the “all or nothing” mentality I find so frustrating in many of these arguments–this week’s Clay Shirky articles a case in point!

  3. lspencer12 says:

    This chapter also caught my attention. I believe that researchers should access to scholarly research at little or no cost. The general public should be charged a few for use similar to the way in which some newspapers charge varying fees for access to their archives. I have always been a firm believer in sharing of knowledge in academia as well as in other professions. I have always felt that withholding knowledge serves no useful purpose. As a researcher, I do research to join in on an already established dialogue, adding to what is an established narrative or providing other alternatives to a popular narrative. The only reason as I see it to restrict access to historical scholarship is to maintain a power base. If you are affiliated with an academic institution you have the necessary access to the scholarship to advance your work. If you are a lay researcher without institutional affiliations then you run the risk of having your work retarded by limited access to relevant scholarship. This “digital divide” as serves no purpose in the quest for knowledge. Perhaps if historical scholar was more readily accessible then there would be less garbage floating around cyberspace. Or at least there would be a means for individuals to do their due diligence and research the topic further.

  4. acoleman34 says:

    I agree that there are many solutions available to the both the public and academic world and while I think all of historical scholarship should be accessible, not necessarily free, I also believe those solutions will take time and money. I think you hit the nail on the head there. It seems we are headed in the right direction but as you mention, many publishing institutions are dragging their feet in providing true open access to online materials. Withholding access only disrupts research and, in my opinion, ensures shoddy work. By allowing more access through one of the solutions you bring up, institutions will create more opportunities for excellent scholarship.

  5. jeldredge1 says:

    This chapter resonated with me personally as well. It’s always so frustrating as a researcher to come upon gateway barriers to an article that looks like it might be just what you’re after! As students with a connection to the University System of Georgia, we have routes around those gates now, but I’m coming upon graduation, and I know I’ll miss the access I have now. I think it’s especially hard on post grads who want and need to continue their access to current research and publications, but face cost- prohibitive barriers. I always appreciate scholars who self publish their works on their own university or personal pages, when I have my own publications, I would like to do the same. In addition, I think that sites like can be a power bridge in this issue. This free site lets researchers publish their own work, track analytics about their papers, and track the work of their colleagues. It also has blog space and a chance for informal peer review and networking for scholars. I think such sites are more the wave of the future when it comes to open access scholarship and community, and we’ll see less of the gateway archives in this Web 2.0

  6. Julie says:

    Like many of the contributors above, this chapter definitely caught my attention, especially as a supporter of free research. When I learn that it can be more expensive for online scholarly journals to create barriers to prevent unsubscribed access (Rozenweig mentioned: “once scholarly publications have placed their contents online, it actually costs more to maintain the gates that lock out potential readers than it would to open these works to the world.”) I felt confused. Why create an extra expense to bar potentially interested parties when allowing access free would save the publisher money?

  7. Adina Langer says:

    Alexandra, thank you for your concise and thoughtful summary of the issues surrounding the prospect at providing quality secondary scholarship for free, or at least at very low cost. It is easy for scholars to exist in a mindspace where they imagine a world where the scholarship they know about is generally known. They can then feel (wrongly) justified in lamenting the ignorance of the general public about the interpretations they hold dear. I wonder what it would cost for the government to buy access to scholarly repositories for all public schools? This might give people a place to start, especially when they are just beginning their educations…

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