Open Access Articles! or, what happens to old articles

Open Access Articles! or, what happens to old articles

How best to make journal articles accessible? Over the years, I’ve published a few dozen essays, in a range of journals, books, encyclopedias, newsletters, and blogs. A recent discussion with folks from the Brown University Library about the Brown Digital Repository got me thinking about how accessible they were, and how to make them more accessible. And so I spent some time trying to figure out what was on the web, what was open to the public, and what to do about it.

The first thing on my cv is from 1976, when I was a senior at MIT. I spent a summer working on a bibliography for a conference volume, New England Agriculture: Values, Structures, New Directions. It seems lost in the mists of time; the volume’s not even on WorldCat. I’ve dropped from my cv some undergraduate articles on 17th century mathematics published in Synthesis, a Harvard student journal of the history of science; that journal seems lost as well.

In graduate school, I wrote a series of encyclopedia articles on 17th century mathematicians for the Academic American Encyclopedia, an experiment in online publishing. I got paid for it! but I doubt that the words are anywhere online now, or that the CD-ROM, if one survives, is readable. A number of essays for teacher’s guides and the like might be in libraries somewhere, but certainly not accessible. And frankly, none of this is much of a loss. Scholarship has a short half-life, and this kind of quasi-scholarship has an even shorter one.

My first real academic journal articles, from the 1980s, are online now, mostly through JSTOR. More recent ones are on the publisher’s website, or in one of the other journal repositories. That means that they’re findable, if you know how to look. But they certainly aren’t high on the Google search results, and they aren’t linked from Wikipedia. Academics can find them, if they look hard. JSTOR is open to all, it’s not easy of access; most journal repositories are closed.

Newsletter articles, book chapters, pamphlets: mostly gone.

Exhibits: it’s surprising how little survives from exhibits. The Smithsonian archives has some material, no doubt, but museums tend to be very bad at documenting their exhibitions. And the online manifestations of exhibitions don’t last much beyond the exhibition. Security upgrades, Flash downgrades, and the like have done them in. I sometimes claim that the Toolchests online exhibition of 1994 was the Smithsonian’s first online exhibit; it’s long gone from the Smithsonian website, but available (yea!) on the Internet Archive.

So, how to make things more available? There are many sites that are happy to hold pdfs., for example, has built a social web and a business model around academic articles. The Humanities Commons, run by the MLA, offers similar services but without the worries about a big company using my data, and presumably a longer life – but with a smaller audience. Brown encourages us to put material that’s open-access in the Brown Digital Repository, the BDR for short.

That’s what I’ve done. It’s open, free, and will be there forever. They add metadata and keywords. They can even can provide a doi for writings that don’t have them – blog posts, for instance. (A good explanation of why this is good is here.) There’s a downside, though: no built-in discovery, no analytics.

But what can be included? Almost all journals require that rights be handed over, in exchange for them publishing the paper. (But not all; check SHERPA/RoMEO to see what you’re allowed to post.) But there’s an exception: work done by US federal government employees is public domain. Most of my writings are from the time I was a proud federal civil servant, and so… it’s free! Your tax dollars at work!

I’ve uploaded about twenty articles. Some are liberated from JSTOR. Some I found elsewhere online, in hard-to-discover archives – an article from the Maryland Historical Journal from the Maryland Historical Society, an essay on artifacts and museums that I am still proud of from the newsletter archives of the Organization of American Historians. One of my favorite articles, “West Old Baltimore Road,” was published in a wonderful journal, Landscape, which seems to have escaped digitization. I scanned my copy, and now it’s available. An essay published in an online journal is preserved in two places, now A very long series of essays on the history of museum cataloging original published on Medium is now safe forever at the BDR, with its own doi!

Sorting through old publications, figuring out what’s worth finding, what’s worth saving, and what’s worth sharing is a useful exercise. In part, it’s an ego trip: look, I wrote this, and I think it’s still interesting. But it also offers new perspective on the way that scholarship ages, the way it slowly fades away. And the way that the BDR, and other institutional repositories, can keep it alive.

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