Taking a wrong turn at the APA

December 8th, 2004 by Ross Scaife

An earlier post to this blog summarizes new NEH-funded work on the problems of digitizing Latin incunabula. The project will disseminate its results very broadly, through publication of data on freely accessible sites like Perseus and in other university digital libraries, application of extremely liberal Creative Commons licenses to program code, and so forth. In taking this approach, Rydberg-Cox and his colleagues have lots of company: a strong consensus has long since formed among classicists with the greatest relevant expertise that Open Access methods represent “best practice” in our field. Experiences from a full decade of scholarly electronic publication online have demonstrated that we can now reach a huge international audience that’s eager to use the resources (texts, images, tools, analyses) we can make available concerning the ancient world.

Against that background, the recent APA decision to create a members-only portion of its web site strikes me as an obvious mistake, to the extent that the APA pushes this as a repository for additional members-only scholarly content. I believe that what the APA has done represents an unimaginative and inadequate response to the opportunities afforded us in our networked world. In the first place, the claim that limiting access to the database of members “gives current members a strong incentive to remain members” is hard to take seriously. Also, in restricting TAPA to this closed portion of the site, the members-only ploy creates a needless dichotomy between a tiny group of insiders with privileged access to information and outsiders (= the entire world) without that. Could the APA come up with any better way than this to perpetuate the ideal of Classics as a 19th century gentlemen’s club? Then too, by putting TAPA (wait, members already get that, right?) and discounts on books from OUP behind the firewall, the APA privileges the most conventional and traditional forms of scholarly communication in Classics but relegates to a lesser status the wonderful variety of innovative work being done online by many of its own members. Finally, the APA looks to be running against an accelerating trend in other disciplines, especially the natural sciences (read about the proposed new requirement for Public Access from the NIH here).

[Update: The New York Times article (14 December 2004) on new digitization projects notes that "The Google effort and others like it that are already under way, including projects by the Library of Congress to put selections of its best holdings online, are part of a trend to potentially democratize access to information that has long been available to only small, select groups of students and scholars." Compare!]

A second update: Please don’t miss the thoughtful remarks of Alun Salt at The Undoctored Past regarding this post.

A third update: Interesting and important continuations of this discussion at Blogographos, by David Meadows and Alun Salt — not to be missed. I hope to have more to say about it all when I am done with current traveling.

PS: You’ll notice that the comments form below is turned off, simply because it’s hard to prevent blog comments sections from filling up with spam, and I don’t want to waste time clearing it out. But I’m always glad to hear people’s thoughts on this important topic. You can reach me at scaife–AT–gmail.com.

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