Saturday, February 27, 2010

How to be an awesome researcher if you're at a rich school or have Ivy-connected friends

The Little Professor has a good post up about one of my pet peeves: those who extol the virtues of electronic databases for research when the cost of those databases is too high for many, perhaps even most, universities and colleges. She writes:
But I am railing at attempts to discuss the New Golden Age of Electronic Research in ways that do not acknowledge how localized that Age is currently proving to be. Yes, we have more free stuff; we also have lots more stuff that only a few, relatively well-funded colleges can purchase.
The Little Professor links to Professor Awesome Researcher's article in the New York Times arguing that "that a university’s tenure demands should keep pace with technological advances." Thanks to good connections--a friend at an Ivy--he found a bunch of hits in EEBO and can crank out a book faster, so what's wrong with the rest of us slackers that we're not doing the same?

Now, Professor Awesome has a point: it's easier to search for things electronically than to be to lug a stack of index cards to the long tables of reference books. But Little Professor's point, with which I would entirely agree, is that these resources aren't free and available to everyone, and access to them shouldn't depend on being a faculty member at Moneybag$ University or on having an obliging and well-connected friend who doesn't mind lending an access code.

This is one of the things that the NEH Digitization Projects do right; they state up front that "We strongly encourage projects that offer free public access to online resources. All other considerations being equal, preference will be given to projects that provide free, online access to digital materials produced with grant funds." But even NEH funding doesn't guarantee access; the Brown Women Writers Project, for example, is a subscription-only database despite its NEH funding. The question of access sometimes takes a back seat to the issues of preservation and digitization.

Although talk about the "digital divide" focuses, and rightly so, on the gap between those in the general public, especially schoolchildren, who don't have access to computers and the Internet, there's also a gap in the resources available to universities with less funding. If the "digital divide" is the Grand Canyon, maybe the academic version is the digital equivalent of climbing over a wall--a subscription wall. Pretending that digital access is universal and that the wall doesn't exist doesn't help anyone, least of all those who don't have a handy ladder in the form of a nearby institution that subscribes or a conveniently well-connected friend.


JaneB said...

I think this is an important issue, thanks for raising it.

In my context, I work at a reasonably well-funded university, so do have access to various databases - but it is against their terms and conditions for me to download an item for a colleague at another institution or let anyone use my access codes. So it's not just knowing the right people, in my context it's also about knowing someone willing to do something illegal... I certainly share pdfs and so on, but justify it to myself by thinking that I download them for my own use in the first place.

It's a problem.

But open access is not a solution, imo, because the authors then have to pay to publish, and that too presents barriers whose height is set by local resources...

undine said...

Thanks for your comment, JaneB. You've identified a problem that doesn't get mentioned: the legality of sharing access codes. I can also see how someone who has access would feel put on the spot by such a request: on the one hand, you want to help, but on the other hand, this is a violation of the terms of service you agreed to. I'm with you on the access vs. pdf issue.

I guess I make a distinction between open access databases of primary texts, such as EEBO, and open access journals. I have less of a problem with charging for access to journals, maybe because the fees are less and I can usually pay them individually if the university doesn't have access I agree--paying subvention fees (or whatever they're called) would be another kind of problem, and a worse one.

The Bittersweet Girl said...

This is an issue I feel really strongly about because there is one Super Uber Wonderful Database in my field and those who have access to it can do all sorts of amazing research that the rest of us cannot -- or can only do with more difficulty.

I am lucky to have a friend at Major Ivy who is a dedicated populist and gave me hir access code, so I could use Super Uber Wonderful Database ... without which there is no way I could have completed a recent major publication. But when my friend graduates from Major Ivy I will be back in the dark ages -- and frankly I'm really angry about it.

But enough venting ... I actually have a constructive point to make too:

Why don't some of these databases offer individual subscriptions? I would pay good money, out of my own pocket, to have access to Super Uber Wonderful Database -- but that's not an option. I know of only one major scholarly database that offers individual subscriptions -- and it would seem like they are making money hand over fist! Maybe there are logistical issues I can't conceptualize, but it seems silly to not at least explore this route.

Christopher Vilmar said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again, but there needs to be a move towards something of a consortium model of database subscription. Some databases are exorbitantly expensive (I'm looking at you, ECCO), and for a campus where possibly only a couple of people (plus the occasional student) will be using it there's simply no way to justify the costs. Surely if they allowed X users on for Y amount, there would be the possibility of making up the lack of massive single purchases with more but less individually profitable consortium-style purchases? This kind of thing happens in the public library world all the time.

undine said...

Bittersweet Girl, I'd pay, too, if the subscriptions were available. But no--if a particular institution or content librarian doesn't think the database is worth the expense, we're out of luck.

Christopher Vilmar, I like that consortium idea. A lot of libraries have it for things like Interlibrary Loan; why not for databases?