June 25, 2006

Online encyclopedias, but not wikis

Scott McLemee has joined Sage Storrs, Jeremy Boggs, Alun Salt, and Roy Rosenzweig in discussing both how to teach students how to read Wikipedia skeptically and also how to colonize Wikipedia and other open-source secondary materials. I will leave the teaching angle alone for the moment and head directly to the question of what we write and how.

As the editor of an online journal, I am biased in favor of open access, and one of the frustrating aspects of the Historical Statistics of the United States—Millennial Edition (HSUS-ME) is their hard-copy business model, which relied on an old assumption: you get an agreement with a publisher for an expensive project, maybe enough of an advance to pay contributors a pittance, and then sell hard copies to libraries at exhorbitant rates to justify the project. Cambridge University Press added on a pay-per-view model. For example, if you head towards the historical statistics on education, you get asked for $6 for 48-hour access.

For many, that's not a bad deal. Pay, zip in, suck up the tables while you have access, and go. But think of who this leaves out: schoolkids whose parents don't have acces to $6. You want to give students the sense that history is beyond their reach? Put things behind a subscription wall. Fortunately, the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress, along with dozens of other sites, show that there is a way to provide access to historical materials (and I consider statistics part of that—see the Integrated Public Use Microdata Sample website for an example—their business model is "get grants; do work; make it available to the world for free"). For goodness' sake: many of the source materials for HSUS-ME come from the Census Bureau and other agencies which throw terabytes of data online for public consumption. And HSUS-ME is behind a subscription wall? To quote from a Christine Lavin song, "What were they thinking?"

But that's blood under the bridge (to quote a German professor from many years ago at another institution). I hope that the HSUS-ME is the very last semi-definitive compilation of statistics that operates under this model.

So, from a philosophical and professional standpoint, I'm in favor of open access. And yet I know from my one attempt at contributing to Wikipedia how frustrating collective writing is. Fortunately, there are other options. Online refereed encyclopedias for narrow topics, the reference equivalent to online journals, could allow anyone to submit an article that would be vetted by an editorial board. The versions would be (like Wikipedia) open to comment and discussion, but there would be editorial control. But the wonderful thing about online encyclopedias is that there would be openness to multiple perspectives. If you don't like an article's stance, just write a competing version! And with an online encyclopedia, obsolete articles aren't a problem.

I have my hands full with current obligations, but I'd love for others to run with this one. Go collect enough of an editorial board to run the project, get someone to fund the copyediting if you can (such as scholarly societies), and then visit the Open Journal Systems website (free online-journal system) and see if that might work for you. (I can think of at least two ways to tweak that into an encyclopedia-friendly form.)

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Posted in History on June 25, 2006 8:00 AM |