I was delighted by two essays by Anton Howes on The Replication Crisis in History Open History. We computerists have long had an open culture: we make our publications open, as well as sharing the software we write and the data we analyse. My work on security economics and security psychology has taught me that this culture is not yet as well-developed in the social sciences. Yet we do what we can. Although we can’t have official conference proceedings for the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security – as then the economists would not be able to publish their papers in journals afterwards – we found a workable compromise by linking preprints from the website and from a liveblog. Economists and psychologists with whom we work have found their citation counts and h-indices boosted by our publicity mechanisms; they have incentives to learn.
A second benefit of transparency is reproducibility, the focus of Anton’s essay. Scholars are exposed to many temptations, which vary by subject matter, but are more tempting when it’s hard for others to check your work. Mathematical proofs should be clear and elegant but are all too often opaque or misleading; software should be open-sourced for others to play with; and we do what we can to share the data we collect for research on cybercrime and abuse.
Anton describes how more and more history books are found to have weak foundations, where historians quote things out of context, ignore contrary evidence, and elaborate myths and false facts into misleading stories that persist for decades. How can history correct itself more quickly? The answer, he argues, is Open History: making as many sources publicly available as possible, just like we computerists do.
As it happens, I scanned a number of old music manuscripts years ago to help other traditional music enthusiasts, but how can this be done at scale? One way forward comes from my college’s Archives Centre, which holds the personal papers of Sir Winston Churchill as well as other politicians and a number of eminent scientists. There the algorithm is that when someone requests a document, it’s also scanned and put online; so anything Alice looked at, Bob can look at too. This has raised some interesting technical problems around indexing and long-term archiving which I believe we have under control now, and I’m pleased to say that the Archives Centre is now celebrating its 50th anniversary.
It would also be helpful if old history books were as available online as they are in our library. Given that the purpose of copyright law is to maximise the amount of material that’s eventually available to all, I believe we should change the law to make continued copyright conditional on open access after an initial commercial period. Otherwise our historians’ output vanishes from the time that their books come off sale, to the time copyright expires maybe a century later.
My own Security Engineering book may show the way. With both the first edition in 2001 and the second edition in 2008, I put six chapters online for free at once, then released the others four years after publication. For the third edition, I negotiated an agreement with the publishers to put the chapters online for review as I wrote them. So the book came out by instalments, like Dickens’ novels, from April 2019 to September 2020. On the first of November 2020, all except seven sample chapters disappeared from this page for a period of 42 months; I’m afraid Wiley insisted on that. But after that, the whole book will be free online forever.
This also makes commercial sense. For both the 2001 and 2008 editions, paid-for sales of paper copies increased significantly after the whole book went online. People found my book online, liked what they saw, and then bought a paper copy rather than just downloading it all and printing out a thousand-odd pages. Open access after an exclusive period works for authors, for publishers and for history. It should be the norm.