Friday, April 29, 2016

Digital Access for Independent Scholars

Corresponding with contributors to the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, I was reminded that independent scholars--those currently unaffiliated with colleges and universities--do not have proper access to digital scholarship. Even an independent scholar who is a member of a professional organization such as the Society for Ethnomusicology is unable to access journal articles, e-books, and other materials that professors and students are able to read over the Internet through the electronic portals of their college and university libraries. Yet independent scholars deserve this same access. The situation needs to be addressed, by the academic libraries and the institutions they serve, and also by the professional organizations to which independent scholars belong.

Academic library resources far exceed those of almost all public libraries. Digital access through one's neighborhood public library is insufficient. Fifteen years ago, most academic libraries subscribed to academic journals in hard copy, and these along with the latest books could be found in the library stacks, accessible to independent scholars who showed their credentials as researchers. Today, the majority of new books and academic journals can no longer be found in hard copy there. Instead, they are made available through a portal on the academic library's website; but this portal is closed to all except those with college or university affiliation and identification. Independent scholars have no access to it.

This usually is not a problem for  professors in retirement. One of the perks of retirement is that library privileges are retained, even if office space and other types of support disappear. But students (graduate and undergraduate) typically do not retain library privileges at their alma maters. Most college and university graduates with bachelor's degrees seldom require more than what could be obtained through the neighborhood public library. But among those with advanced degrees, an increasing percentage are becoming independent of academic institutions while they continue to pursue scholarly research. They may be employed by museums, by non-profit organizations, by government, and elsewhere outside of academia, while they need access to a good academic digital library. It is not generally available to them.

When I've raised this issue, defending my independent scholar colleagues in applied ethnomusicology and public folklore, the academic libraries I've spoken with have resisted extending privileges to anyone no longer associated with the college or university. Graduate faculty, who might be expected to intercede here, have not stepped up. I have yet to hear a good reason why not. As far as I can tell, it would cost the institutions almost nothing to grant library privileges to their graduates with advanced degrees, many of whom have paid a good deal to attend while sacrificing some years of salary in so doing.

If academic institutions and their libraries will not change their policies, then the professional organizations independent scholars belong to ought to work on their behalf. Independent scholars probably comprise nearly half of the degreed members of many professional societies in the humanities and social sciences. These Societies have made token gestures insofar as they can afford to do so, arranging with some of the digital library repositories such as JSTOR to permit their members access to electronic issues of their organization's own journal, and sometimes other journals--for a small fee added to the membership cost. But this is far from sufficient. Most academic books published for the past few years, and those that will be published in the foreseeable future, will never wind up on the shelves of a library. Rather, they are available only through an academic library's digital portal. Organizations such as the Society for Ethnomusicology, and the American Folklore Society--I belong to both--have made these gestures to members, but they need to do more to change the culture of academic institutions and their libraries so they will change policy and grant digital access to independent scholars routinely.


  1. Thanks for this post Jeff.

    There are some workarounds available for independent scholars, such as JSTOR's free "bookshelf" model, but by no means does this make all their content accesible.

    There is also the related issue of public funded research being published in subscription-only digital journals. In this way, the public ends up having to pay twice for the research.

    Perhaps scholarly organisations could look at movubg their journals to open access alternatives. It does seem somewhat odd - given its focus - that the "Journal of American Folklore" is not open access, for instance.

    1. Thanks for your comment and suggestions. The possibility of moving the Journal of American Folklore to open access came up at the spring Executive Board meeting, earlier this month. A few of us were in favor but the majority worried that the Society would lose significant revenue that way. And it would. I was surprised to learn that the Society earns more from royalties from JSTOR (they get a small payment every time someone uses it to read an article from the Journal of American Folklore), than it earns from sales of the Journal to libraries and also as a portion of Society membership dues. If I recall right, the Society receives some $80,000 from JSTOR annually, which is a significant portion of its annual budget. So despite the view that folklore itself is public domain, the Journal remains doubly protected in this way. When I realized that I would have full electronic access to Ethnomusicology, the Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology, I donated my complete run of back issues to the library of a historically Black college. I hope they still have them on their shelves so that independent scholars as well as those affiliated with the college can access them.

  2. Jeff, several tiers of contracts are responsible for issues of access through academic libraries. If a publisher (U. of Illinois Press, say) or aggregator (JStor or Ebsco) is not willing to extend access to verified alumns for a fair price, then it's not going to happen. The alumni associations/foundations have to maintain an up-to-date database with verification for alumns to have access.

    Some librarians who have to deal with the publisher and/or aggregator contracts are more knowledgeable than others and have better success negotiating.

    You have pointed out one of the biggest obstacles for academic and professional societies/associations and that is the income stream. Electronic access provides a different kind of income stream because of the varieties of access through various vendors without the costs of print production and mailing.

    At least in the US, certain types of publicly funded research published in journals must be made freely available.

    This also includes data sets, if I understand correctly. And it focuses on science (including some social sciences). Nothing about the NEH or NEA funded projects, though.

    More in another comment...

    1. Thanks to LGG for the additional information. Possibly I am misunderstanding something, but it would appear that the universities and the university presses are working at cross purposes here, if the university presses price the colleges and universities out of making their books available electronically to alums with advanced degrees. However, independent scholars with an advanced degrees do not encounter that obstacle directly; instead, they are told by their alma mater, "Sorry, you don't have library privileges here any more." Period. And it is especially troubling when electronic access means travel to visit the alma mater's library would not be necessary. Perhaps if alums with advanced degrees paid a reasonable annual fee? Back in the day, a qualified independent scholar could use the Widener Library at Harvard for a fee (which amount did not seem very reasonable to me, but then Harvard's offered resources that other libraries did not).

  3. Thanks for raising these important issues. As someone who will be engaging in independent research in the coming year, this is one of my major concerns. I appreciate Jeff's arguments in favor of access to library resources (particularly electronic) for independent scholars, and I'm also grateful for the responses with additional information on current options and restrictions.

  4. Thanks for raising this issue. As a new graduate, now "independent scholar", this presents a significant challenge to continued research, as well as publishing. As an OSU alumni, I can have access to the physical library (for a small fee), but not to its electronic resources as you said. I have discovered that The American Folklore Society offers JSTOR access to its members for a reasonable fee ($100), and there are always those scholars who make their work available via, which has become a godsend for me. I would be very grateful if other professional societies offered similar access to journals widely used in their respective disciplines.

  5. I hope that independent scholars will press this issue and that the professional societies not only will respond themselves but will also pressure the universities to offer access. I intend to keep at it, myself. Thank you for the additional information.