Obstacles to Historical Scholarship

The question of whether academic scholarship should be accessible to all is a complicated one. In his article, “Should Scholarship be Free?,” Roy Rosenzweig posits that it should and I agree. It doesn’t make sense that only those who can afford to pay for access to databases or are affiliated with academic institutions are able to read the latest historical findings and research. There is no way of knowing how much the restriction of information has stifled new insights and interpretations, but there is no doubt that this is the case. The problem with free scholarship is funding. Research and publications need to be supported financially and that is where journal subscription fees come in. Rosenzweig puts forth multiple suggestions for how to handle the money issue, including allowing partial access to journals so that at least articles can be viewed and creating journals that only exist electronically to cut costs associated with printing them. Considering that the value of studying history is no longer universally accepted in this country, it’s extremely important that those who are still interested in the endeavor should have all the resources required to accomplish it.

Something that can also restrict the dissemination of historical research is copyright law. While established to protect creative output, it can hamper scholarship. In general, it is important to obtain permission when using another’s intellectual property. However, it is vitally important to understand when permission is not required because something is covered under fair use or because a copyright has lapsed or does not apply. Because this is murky territory and no one wants to be sued, many people err on the side of caution, meaning asking permission even when it is not necessary. However, the concept of fair use needs to be affirmed and expanded or it will be lost. Some intellectual property is part of public domain and needs to be treated as such. Unfortunately, some people (and lawyers) become overzealous with copyright law and think that they can deny use even when they have no right, which is why historians need to familiarize themselves with the basics of copyrights. In “Pushing Back Against Legal Threats by Putting Fair Use Forward,” Jeffrey Young describes two professors who have put out guides to fair use and copyrights. Although for a digital historian, it would be fairly easy to rectify a copyright infringement as a website can be easily updated, these kinds of guides would improve historical scholarship in both print and digital media. Historians should be well-informed in copyright law but must be willing to take risks in order to produce the best scholarship possible.


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