Putting high quality historical research into a collaborative, open access environment
What is it?
Institutions for Collective Action is a website full of high quality open access research, datasets, teaching materials and other resources about historical institutional forms of collective action, such as craft guilds.
The site is the result of funding from the European Research Council and the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO) for two projects being coordinated at the University of Utrecht by Dr Tine de Moor.
While the NWO mandates that datasets produced as a result of its funding must be made publicly available, Dr de Moor is a committed open access advocate and wanted to fulfil the NWO’s commitment to public access to its funded research in a much more creative way than a simple data dump.
How is it a success?
The site is designed to be a two-way process, both a resource for researchers to use the material offered – for free – on the site and an opportunity for them contribute their own material (such as datasets, publications and source material) via the site, becoming part of the academic discourse on the subject.
“It’s all about the idea that if you put this data within a dynamic environment, if you have an infrastructure that allows you to put the data not only as something that goes out but also as something that comes in, annotated with comments on it and so on, then you not only enhance future research but also research right now. Open access can be much more than simply providing access to the data you’ve collected,” says Dr de Moor.
What also sets the website apart from a simple data archive is the high bar set on the quality of resources submitted to and available on the site. The site has achieved a very solid start, since September 2010, with the stock of data provided through the funded projects, and the sense that it is a serious project with high quality control by peers will be a key factor in determining whether or not academics are prepared to submit their datasets. Dr de Moor acknowledges that there can be a reluctance to share this kind of material in her field.
“It’s a particularly sensitive area in historical research because this kind of research often entails a lot of labour. It can take years before you have a proper dataset. So people are wary about what will happen to their data and so you have to offer something in return, such as the promotional benefits of being part of a larger network of people and projects working on similar topics, ” explains Dr de Moor. “In return for cooperation, we offer the possibility to promote your own project via our website, with a specific ‘affiliated project’ page, with news about your project via our regular newsletter. Many historical projects don’t even have a simple webpage. We offer the service for free. Open access then becomes more than simply sharing your data: it becomes a stimulus for cooperation between peers, which is essential for scientific progress.
“People often don’t realise that bringing data together is not only good for the common good but also for themselves. They will be associated with other data that are high quality and peer reviewed, and they become part of an academic discussion and their research is being read and their publications get attention,” she adds.
All the datasets on the site feature extensive metadata, including background data on the type of source and the other sources that exist but are not yet online. There are glossaries and bibliographies, open access research contextualised as introductions to recent debates – ideal for teaching purposes – and links to other educational features. The site also reaches out through affiliated projects and “collabatories” – temporary research and data networks for exchange of knowledge, data and instruments, which are common in the natural sciences but less well-known in the social sciences.
Plans for the future include expanding the scope of the site to include present day collective action institutions, such as labour unions and cooperatives, and to extend the range of countries covered with more datasets on other parts of the world.