Real Benefits of Open Scholarship

Recently Gideon Burton speculated at Academic Evolution about what it would mean to be an open scholar: “someone who makes their intellectual projects and processes digitally visible.” One of the benefits Burton sees in open scholarship is that “having open data is in fact provisioning for serendipity,” allowing folks working on related projects to find and, hopefully, support each other’s research. Open scholarship requires a scholar “open to input from those outside of the project, the institution, or even academia”—which is to say, it requires a paradigm shift, especially from the cloistered traditions of humanities scholarship.

In the few posts I’ve added to this development blog, I’ve tried to open the project up in this way. While still in the midst of research, I’ve discussed the genesis of the project, the tools and resources I’m using to research and build the site, and my ongoing textual and technological discoveries. This work has already born fruit.

In a recent post I discussed the online newspaper archives I’ve used to find reprintings of “The Celestial Railroad,” and I speculated about which archives I’ve found most useful. Soon thereafter I received an email from a marketing director at Readex, whose America’s Historical Newspapers I had omitted from the “most useful” list. He politely asked me why, and whether I had any suggestions about how AHN could better serve scholars working on similar projects.

When I replied that I simply hadn’t found much in AHN—no witnesses, and only a few references to the story—he responded with a list of search results he’d found of “The Celestial Railroad,” which included at least one witness and several references I’d not discovered. The problem, it turns out, was that UVA only subscribes to three of the seven available series of Early American Newspapers.

Searching the entire database, he found many that I would never had known existed, because I had no idea that the database I was accessing through UVA’s library was incomplete. Had I not been posting my research, this serendipitous conversation (between an academic and a marketing director, no less) would likewise never have happened.

The story has a happy ending. Readex has generously given me personal access to the entire database for the month of November—not quite as good as UVA subscribing to it, but given how tight both library and personal budgets are right now, I’ll take it. I also understand that worse encounters are possible through open scholarship, including intellectual theft. But this exchange demonstrates that Burton’s ideas can pan out in the ways he imagines. I’ll certainly keep blogging this project, and likely will do so more fervently from now on.

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