Monday, December 14, 2009

Open Access Encyclopedias

Having been involved in an open access database here at Pace Law School, I know from experience how difficult it is to keep it going. Funding is available for start-up ventures, but harder to get for established programs. Even though a database is extremely valuable, users are reluctant to pay for it, especially if it's been free for awhile and they have never paid for it. The sponsoring institution may recognize its value, but not have the resources available to devote to it, especially when there are so many competing demands. How do you maintain a database or other online scholarly project in the absence of regular sources of funding?

This article from Inside Higher Ed provides some insights from institutions that are trying to "build online encyclopedias that are rigorous, scholarly, and free to access." Why even bother with encyclopedias when "journals ... have the cachet of being the frontlines of academic discovery"? According to a librarian at the University of Pennsylvania, "'There is a need to get good verifiable academic information out there,' ... 'whether it's general or specific.'" One of the major roadblocks to producing a scholarly encyclopedia is securing contributors who are willing to write for free "without compromising the rigor of the editorial process." Eugene M. Izhikevich, editor-in-chief of Scholarpedia, "a free, 'peer-reviewed' online compendium" says the way to do this is to "make contributing a privilege." By "playing to [contributors'] egos," a great deal of high-quality material can be secured at no cost. Unlike Wikipedia articles, Scholarpedia articles are credited, and the name of the "curator" of each article appears in a prominent position. This may mean that authorship of a Scholarpedia article will have value during the tenure process.

Even with some free labor, open access encyclopedias need money to keep going. Some encyclopedias have to hire editors to improve articles written by non-native speakers of English. The editors of other encyclopedias want to translate their articles into other languages, and translators do not work for free. One possible "solution" to the funding problem is to induce libraries to pay dues to encyclopedias that are freely available online. This strategy is being sold to libraries "as an investment in open access--a cause many libraries, frustrated by the rising prices of academic journals, have been happy to support." The author concludes that there is no "blueprint for success," and that some projects may not "survive in the long term." Interestingly, "even Wikipedia is beginning to bend under the burden of the free-content model. It recently started running large banner ads asking users to donate money to curb the massive infrastructure costs that come from being the world's fifth most highly-trafficked Web site. It has imposed increasingly strict submission and editing codes, and the rate at which new articles are added has fallen significantly."

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