Digital Scholarship, Networked Scholarship, and Other Side Effects of Open

Oct 27, 2016

[1] As an early-career librarian, I am fortunate to have come into a world of academic libraries that already values Open Access. I learned about open access in my courses and discussed it at length with my peers over coffee in the student lounge at graduate school. I had the opportunity to work as a graduate assistant with librarians at the University of Toronto, who were doing great work to advance knowledge and practice of Open Access, and I was able to participate in that work. And yet, every time I engaged in one of these conversations, I had a very clear picture in my head: a simple PDF of a journal article.

The term “open access” is typically used to describe traditional forms of scholarship, openly licensed, and accessible on the open web. The experience of reading something open access need not be much different than reading any other piece of scholarship. Perhaps this is why “open access” tends to be synonymous with journal articles and not books. Compared to a monograph, a journal article is bite-sized. We’re used to reading articles on the web, and those who prefer print to screen can tolerate the screen-time and/or the cost of printing their own physical copy. But the digital-book bandwagon has been a tougher sell, and consequently, so have open-access monographs.

When an open-access book is just a print book on a screen, it is difficult to understand its value. Sure, it’s free, but it’s difficult to read. In many cases, you can’t annotate it the way you might annotate a print book. You can’t slip in your favorite bookmark and walk away for a while. You could print the whole thing, but it would be expensive, wasteful, and still wouldn’t have that great book smell. But when open-access books take advantage of their digital platform, the possibilities become endless.

Digital scholarship is a term that is difficult to define precisely because the possibilities for digital scholarship are endless. As a librarian in working in a digital scholarship center, I have yet to find a definition that I feel accurately and wholly reflects the term. But I do believe that open access books have the opportunity to be valuable not only because they are free, but also because they are pieces of digital scholarship. Using Web 2.0 technologies, a book becomes an interactive object. Something as simple as being able to click back and forth between citations can enhance the user’s experience. But what if a book about Beethoven could include the audio for Moonlight Sonata? Or an interactive version of the score? What if a living data visualization could be embedded into a page? When publishers and scholars embrace the value of the digital form, all of these things are possible.

This digital advantage spans beyond each individual piece of scholarship. These books can not only be networked within the confines of each virtual cover, but they can become part of a larger network of scholarship. Open books can be linked to other pieces of open scholarship. Citations can point outwards, to other open articles or books. Graphs and tables can link directly to the open data they came from. This increases credibility of research by supplying supporting evidence. It also provides tangible connections between pieces of scholarship. And the more that scholars produce open work, the less likely that these connections will become dead ends for the reader.

Books have always been and will continue to be one of the cornerstones of scholarly output. Because of this, it is important that books also become a large part of the body of open scholarship. Open books will help to build up a large network of new forms of scholarship: scholarship that is accountable, interactive, and accessible to all.

[1] This blog represents the opinions of Lillian Rigling, and not North Carolina State University Libraries.