Locked Out

Research Access as a Challenge for the Discipline

Becky Nicolaides | Aug 6, 2018

Julie Des Jardins became an independent scholar after leaving a tenured faculty position at Baruch College, CUNY, in 2014. While she worried about reinventing herself professionally outside of academia, another challenge quickly surfaced: how to access research materials without a university affiliation. She was in the midst of two new book projects and was committed to continuing the work. Archival sources were a cinch, but walls arose around scholarly journals, dissertations, digitized newspapers, and books that were housed only in university libraries.

An old door chained shut.

Unevenly distributed access to research resources imperils historical scholarship.

Des Jardins went knocking at a university near her home but was denied access to the library. She explored alumni privileges at her alma mater—200 miles away—but learned that it grants access to most digital resources only in person. She tried her local library, hoping to peruse the historic New York Times database, but learned that only library staff could access it directly. When her family moved to Northern California, she was shut out again. As she reflected, “I emailed a former colleague and asked if she wouldn’t mind downloading the academic review of my recent book, since I could not access these reviews myself. It seems like a ridiculous problem, but it is very real to those of us who continue to be historians after we leave the university.”

Des Jardins’s story reflects a growing challenge across the historical profession: gaining access to research materials for scholarship and teaching. The problem has grown as the nature of information has changed, from a democratic public resource during the heyday of the public library movement of the early 20th century to the increasing commercialization of knowledge by the new millennium. As Bernard Reilly of the Center for Research Libraries put it, “Now most of the world’s knowledge is hosted not by libraries, but by corporations like Elsevier, JSTOR, ProQuest, the New York Times, and Bloomberg. That created an enormous shift in the way knowledge is accessed that puts universities in a fairly strong position to serve well their faculty and employees, but not serve well the rest of the citizenry.” The result is a scholarly landscape defined by new forms of inequality, opening up access in some ways but closing it off in others. For those excluded, these changes are creating “a real moment of crisis,” as Reilly put it.

The problem affects not only independent scholars like Des Jardins but also historians working outside of well-funded universities, including faculty at smaller, under-resourced schools, and public historians. Xia Shi, an assistant professor of Chinese history at a small public liberal arts college in Sarasota, Florida, struggles with a lack of access to crucial historical databases in her field. Her college has almost no subscriptions to any Asian studies databases, making it exceedingly difficult to carry out research, to publish in a timely way on the tenure clock, and even to teach adequately. Her students writing theses—a condition of graduation—mostly have to rely on English-language secondary sources and end up changing topics often partly because of the research barriers. Even keeping course syllabi up to date with the latest material becomes a challenge.

Many commercial databases and other resources are not accessible to unaffiliated scholars—even if they are willing to pay.

Many historians are accustomed to using digitized primary and secondary sources provided by companies such as EBSCO, ProQuest, LexisNexis, and ABC-CLIO, or nonprofit providers including JSTOR and Project Muse. Most of these database companies rely exclusively on institution-to-institution contracts with universities, which make them available only to faculty, students, and staff, who may use the resources remotely or in person. While a small number of database companies offer individual subscriptions and some open access sources exist, many resources are not accessible to unaffiliated scholars—even if they are willing to pay. An advanced graduate student on the brink of graduation voiced fears of this research abyss. This student contacted the AHA after learning they would lose university library access upon graduation and feared this would “greatly impinge” on revision of the dissertation into a book if an academic job was not immediately forthcoming. Like other historians, this student relied on access to resources while writing their dissertation, but the realities of the job market for history PhDs threatened the future of their work, and perhaps their ability to be competitive for an academic job.

The AHA Research Division has been exploring this problem to gauge its extent; to understand the contrasting perspectives and roles of users, libraries, and commercial database companies; and to explore possible moves toward more equitable research access. We have made progress on the first two steps, to help lay the groundwork for pursuing realistic solutions to these challenges.

In September 2017, the AHA launched a survey on accessing digital resources for historical research. It was distributed by the AHA and National Coalition of Independent Scholars, and shared widely on social media. The survey drew 1,081 responses; 72 percent were AHA members. Of all respondents, 52 percent were from higher education (including full-time and contingent faculty), 19 percent were independent scholars, and the remainder were public historians, K–12 educators, and employees of government agencies or nonprofits. Twenty-eight people self-identified as retirees.

The results highlighted growing disparities within the profession. Scholars lacking adequate research access find themselves at a severe disadvantage in their ability to produce first-rate work, excel as teachers, and advance their careers.

Faculty at a range of institutions—including smaller, under-resourced colleges and universities, two-year colleges, rural colleges, and institutions overseas—described the difficulty that a lack of access posed to both teaching and scholarship. Some lamented that their students could not access key primary sources, limiting their ability to produce research papers. Others felt that they were not up to date on the latest scholarship because they could not access it, leaving syllabi out of date. Many noted that strapped library budgets mean that there are fewer resources, yet faculty are still expected to produce first-rate scholarship and excel in teaching. For contingent faculty, uneven research access reflects another aspect of their job insecurity—the fear that they will be totally cut off from research materials because of the unpredictability of their employment. If they lose their job, they lose access.

Another group of respondents in higher education was graduate students. Many shared the fear—often accurate—that they would lose full library access once they received their PhD. Alumni library privileges generally offer only truncated versions of commercial databases, such as ProQuest, due to contracts negotiated between libraries and the database companies. 

Historians working outside of the academy face the challenge of lacking university credentials. Independent scholars repeated a common refrain: it is nearly impossible to do scholarship without a university affiliation that allows entrée into research libraries. In recent years, moreover, regional programs for independent scholars at UCLA and Stanford have been severely curtailed, cutting off library access these institutions once granted.[i] Public historians in many sectors are similarly excluded, inhibiting their ability to conduct work-related research. Testimonials from museum professionals, employees at the National Park Service and nonprofits, and K–12 educators described similar difficulties.

“I emailed a former colleague and asked if she wouldn’t mind downloading the academic review of my recent book, since I could not access these reviews myself.”

The survey also asked about work-arounds. To the question “Have you ever used someone else’s account or given someone else your account information to access a research database?” 44 percent (395 people) answered yes. Respondents described leaning on friends and colleagues to retrieve material or borrow passwords. Many disclosed the discomfort of these requests, putting both parties in awkward, risky positions. Other survey takers traveled long distances (typically one- to two-hour drives) to access electronic databases in person at a university library. Finally, some said that the barriers made them simply give up trying to get the research resources they need. They resigned themselves to using subpar resources for both scholarship and teaching, forcing them to do subpar work. Some gave up on scholarship altogether.

Librarians share their own frustrations about these trends. They are caught between their commitment to open, accessible resources, their own limited budgets, and the trends toward commercialized information. Virginia Steele, university librarian at UCLA, acknowledged the “multiple players” involved, each with differing needs. “We need to find a model that works all the way around,” which might involve establishing pilot programs and working with scholarly societies like the AHA, the American Sociological Association, and others.

The growing disparities revealed in this survey—between wealthy and under-resourced institutions, ladder-rank and contingent faculty, and those inside and outside of the academy—convey a troubling trend across the profession. With the rise of career diversity among historians, these gaps are likely to widen in the coming years. The AHA Research Division is working on this issue to better understand the contrasting perspectives of stakeholders involved and ultimately to work with universities, libraries, content providers, and other scholarly societies to explore pathways toward leveling the playing field for all scholars. The ultimate aim in this effort is to enable all types of historical scholarship to thrive, both inside and outside the academy.

Note

[i] Kathleen Sheldon, with Sandra Trudgen Dawson, “Independent Scholars, Feminist Research, and Diminishing Support,” CCWH (Coordinating Council for Women in History) Newsletter 46, no. 4 (December 2016): 7–8.


Becky Nicolaides is a councilor for the AHA’s Research Division.


Tags: From the Research Division Profession Scholarly Communication


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