My Journey Through the Research Access Crisis

By Becky Nicolaides

Back in 2006 when I made the tough decision to walk away from a tenured faculty position at UC San Diego, I knew in the back of my mind that I would always remain a scholar even if I disengaged from the security of an academic career. I still had book and article ideas swirling in my head. I had to hit pause because of family obligations and my need for a calmer, more healthy life routine. I’d been commuting between LA and La Jolla for nine years, all while growing our family and trying to juggle the demands of an academic job and parenting. It got to be too much.

But the idea of shutting down my intellectual growth and scrapping new research projects was never an option. I had spent the previous 20 years getting deeply trained in my field through rigorous study and teaching. I’d published two books, was germinating ideas for a third, and plotting out new modes of financing that work. And I knew that the UCLA Center for the Study of Women stood at the ready for me. It would provide me a new intellectual home base, a crucial conduit to the resources I needed as I refashioned myself into an “independent scholar.” Same mind, same track record, new working universe.

CSW proved to be an outstanding place for my soft landing. I was grateful to be accepted into their Research Scholars Program, a model regional program that provided research resources to local independent scholars. The program gave us a UCLA email address, a community of like-minded scholars, opportunities for small grants, and perhaps most importantly a Bruin ID and password that would get us into the library system. We could check out books like a faculty member and access databases remotely from home. Scholastically, it felt like I had slipped sideways from UCSD to UCLA, into the same kind of access I had as a member of the UCSD faculty. The continuity was reassuring and crucial to keeping my mental momentum moving forward.

But as so-called “visiting scholars” – the designation given us by CSW – my fellow independent scholars and I seemed to occupy a gray zone outside that standard university trifecta – students, faculty, staff. In 2015, much to the distress of CSW itself, the Research Scholars program had to be reconfigured due to a new set of policies and restrictions on visiting scholar positions imposed by UCLA administrators. This move also reflected concerns coming from the library, because library contracts with commercial database companies only allowed off-campus use by that critical trifecta – faculty, students, staff1.

With this change came a loss of full access to library resources, plunging me into a distressing crisis that sent me scrambling. In the middle of a big (and funded) book project, I needed my full access to ProQuest historic newspapers, America History and Life, PhD dissertations, and history journals. I reached out to academic friends and former colleagues. Try your alumni library card, they told me. That only gave me a truncated suite of databases that excluded many sources I needed. Try your local public library. The LA Public Library offered a surprising number of databases, but again didn’t cover the full range of my needs. Try the Huntington Library. Same story. Why don’t you just buy subscriptions to those databases, some asked? That would cost upwards of $500/year for just a portion of the material I needed, and some databases I couldn’t buy into at all because they weren’t available to individuals, only to university libraries. When I relayed my situation to some, they were outraged that a public university, supported by taxpayer dollars, was shutting out the public from full library use. It was possible to purchase a community user card for $100 which allowed a person to check out 5 books at a time (one renewal allowed), no recall privileges, and in big bold type no off-site access to online subscription databases. This fell far short, again. Have you ever seen a history professor’s office? Books line the walls like wallpaper, with some shelves occupied solely by library books, renewed over and over again (I know this, because I used to do it). And the lack of remote database access was a nonstarter for me.

Desperate conversations continued, and one thing led to another, including a new affiliation with USC (hello, library access), and an elected position on the governing council of the American Historical Association, the nation’s oldest, largest association of professional historians. This was a dynamic and powerful group. As the lone independent scholar on that 19-member board, I was committed to bringing the issue of unequal research access onto the radar of the AHA, an organization I knew was highly cognizant of the growing trend toward “career diversity” among history PhDs. In light of a relentlessly tight job market, they were doing plenty to help realign the profession itself to support alternate career paths – read: non-academic – starting with how history departments train their graduate students. I envisioned the issue of research access as another facet of career diversity. I was pursuing an alternative career path at the mid-career stage, while also trying to sustain the scholarly life. Research access had become an agonizing, unexpected barrier to me, for a mercifully brief period. While I’d solved the problem for myself at least temporarily, I wanted to explore this issue on a larger scale, to see what – if any – solutions an entity like the AHA might help bring about.

Over the past two years of my three-year term on the Research Division of the AHA Council, I have explored this issue in some depth. I started out by talking to people, trying to understand why university libraries could not help a person like me, without a formal university affiliation. I spoke with librarians across the country (including UCLA’s Virginia Steele, who was immensely helpful in laying out the issues), representatives from commercial database companies (ProQuest and EBSCO), and the person who runs a research scholars program at Columbia University, my alma mater. I searched for other regional programs or groups for independent scholars – there are not many out there and they mostly don’t give library access. I reached out to the National Coalition for Independent Scholars (NCIS), a group grappling with these issues too. Out of our conversations, Tula Connell of the NCIS ended up launching a working group on the research access issue with the Labor and Working-Class History Association, whose board she sits on. I surveyed several university libraries, to see what sort of alumni library privileges they give – most are truncated suites of commercial databases, which seemed like a standard alumni “package” that companies sell to university libraries. For me personally, the absence of ProQuest Historic Newspapers or – both key historical sources – made the package worthless.

And then I reached out to people affected by this issue. This started out small, through some Facebook queries and by forming a small Facebook group called Research Scholars United. I asked members to share their wish list for research, and the most frequent answer hands down was full research access. Then in September 2017, the outreach stepped up. At the AHA, we launched a survey on research access and the challenges historians face in gaining access to the resources they need, particularly commercial databases. The survey went out to all AHA members, it was publicized by H-SCHOLAR, the NCIS, and the National Council on Public History, and it picked up some social media buzz. I knew we’d touched a nerve when I tweeted about it, and it got 70 retweets – for me, a modest Twitter user, that was huge. We received 1,081 responses. What floored me from the get-go was that over half of respondents were faculty from higher education. After that group, 19 percent were independent scholars, and the remainder from public history, K-12, government, non-profits, retirees, and the like.

The voices from this survey moved me, maddened me, and suggested that this was a problem much broader than I realized. I thought, for example, that most of the respondents would be independent scholars or those working outside of academia. What I didn’t expect was that we’d hear from so many faculty members. The voices from the survey offer frustration after frustration over the inability to get the material they need. Professors voiced frustration because they couldn’t keep up with the latest scholarship for teaching, or give their students access to materials to carry out meaningful research projects. Museum professionals couldn’t access the journal articles or primary sources they needed to do their job. Adjuncts faced the intertwined problems of job and research insecurity – if they lost their gig, they lost research access. And independent scholars – well, they were simply shut out.

The workarounds were equally eye opening. About 43 percent of respondents (nearly 400 people) admitted to using someone else’s ID and password, while others asked friends and colleagues to download articles, two scenarios that put everyone in a risky and uncomfortable spot. Others went to great lengths to access digital materials. Many respondents described driving 1 to 2 hours to a university library to access the databases in person, one person took a class each year from a local university just to get library access (“but it eats up a lot of time”), another hired undergrad interns to use their login password. Some simply gave up on research altogether. That disheartened me the most. After all that training, learning, and intellectual and emotional investment, to throw in the towel because of an access problem was a travesty, a tremendous waste of human intellectual resource. I wrote up a longer piece on the survey results for Perspectives on History, the AHA magazine, and AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman highlighted the research access issue in one of his columns as well. I’m happy for the visibility the AHA is giving to this problem.

The next step has been to discern pathways to wider, more democratic access. To that end, I convened a panel at the AHA conference in January 2018, bringing together library professionals (including Virginia Steele), independent scholars, and a representative from ProQuest into conversation. The exchange was illuminating. Librarians were on the side of increasing access to the widest possible user base, however they – perhaps more than anyone – are aware of budget and contractual constraints. ProQuest has business health to worry about. And the independent scholars highlighted the nature of access inequality, and joined the brainstorming. I include here some glimpses of that conversation:

Steele noted that even well-resourced R1 schools – like the UCs – are facing budget challenges: they deal with 6-8% inflation in cost of resources each year, without funding increases from their campuses. This poses severe problems for people who do have access, as well as those who don’t. Her suggestions were two-fold:

  • The Open Access approach: Historians and all scholars should be highly conscious of where they are submitting their articles, and whether they will be freely accessible.
  • Pilot program: create a business model that works for all parties involved: the independent scholars who need access, the “broker” who would deal with authentication and administration, and the publishers/vendors who need to make a profit. Work with JSTOR or ProQuest to come up with a business model that works all the way around.

Bernie Reilly, president of the Center for Research Libraries (CRL), offered some historic perspective on the problem. I’ll quote him at length, because he captured these trends so well: “What we’re seeing now is the collapse of a system, of a grand system that was put in to provide equitable access to information for citizens, a system that was put into place over several centuries, but really reached its zenith in the early 20th century with the growth and spread of the public library movement in the U.S… That system worked well in the paper realm, the analog realm. But when digital came on, things started to break down. Now most of the world’s knowledge is hosted not by libraries, but by corporations like Elsevier, JSTOR, ProQuest, New York Times, Bloomburg, etc. That created an enormous shift in the way knowledge is accessed that put universities in a fairly strong position to serve well their faculty, their employees – but not serve well the rest of the citizenry. It really deprived public libraries of any real ability to continue to keep up with providing citizens the kind of information, access to information, that they had always done.” The result is the creation of stark information inequality, “a really unlevel playing field that disadvantages people” who are shut out. As he sees it, we are in “a real moment of crisis.” Reilly’s main suggestion:

  • A key role for the national library to solve this problem. The Library of Congress, the national library, the public libraries – all part of the network of the national library – should be central players. The Library of Congress should be exploring things like national site licenses for critical databases. The CRL did this a few years ago, but it only negotiated contracts for academic libraries, not for independent scholars. The solution has to start at the top.

Independent scholar Margaret DeLacey, editor of H-SCHOLAR, acknowledged the complexity of the problem with the interests of many stakeholders at play. She offered a laundry list of suggestions:

  • Improve access to existing sources: Stand-alone research libraries (i.e., Huntington, Folger, Schlesinger) could make providing authentication to independent scholars part of their mission.
  • More robust support for Open Access, such as Open Access grants to individuals to subsidize OA publications. Authors should understand where their work ends up (whether or not it’s behind paywalls).
  • Follow the JSTOR model of offering individual subscriptions, which DeLacey deems a business success: they made $80 million in 2017, and they informed her they were profiting from individual subscriptions.
  • Lobby state legislatures to fund public-oriented research access by increasing appropriations to public libraries which could form consortia with university libraries and thus expand access to the wider public through these alliances. She cited Oregon as a model for this.
  • Convene a working committee on the issue, with participants such as the ACLS, NEH, NSF, Mellon, Internet Archive, Hathi Trust, SPARC (Open Access coalition), H-NET (which has 300,000 members), trade and scholarly publishers, database companies (especially JSTOR, ProQuest), libraries, community colleges, and independent scholars

Kevin Norris of ProQuest gave us insights from the perspective of a large, widely used commercial database company, although he did not speak officially on behalf of ProQuest. A key point he made is that in the eyes of publishers, independent scholars have shifted from being “scholars” to “potential consumers.” Content providers like the New York Times would much rather have them buy an individual subscription, than access their content through other portals. This reflects the fear that their markets would be cannibalized by offering non-traditional access, outside of university libraries. This is why publisher contracts with commercial database companies like ProQuest are strictly limited “to the academic and library marketplaces.” I asked him, “What would it take to renegotiate those agreements?” He answered, “A lot of money.” The challenges for ProQuest are rising costs from content providers (publishers), who are “looking for every dime” for their content. ProQuest is interested in exploring what new business models can help solve the problems set out here. Some suggestions he offered:

  • For smaller, under-resourced schools, maybe ProQuest could package an extensive group of primary sources, and sell them to smaller, under-resourced schools as a subscription (as opposed to a purchase), at a reduced price.
  • Large public libraries in big cities have great resources. ProQuest wants to continue developing models for the public library marketplace.
  • For a company like ProQuest, the only real workable outreach to unaffiliated scholars is through secondary companies like or ProQuest is simply not set up to sell to individuals. They tried this a few years ago in a program called U-Dini, which lasted 18 months but “didn’t cover its costs once in 18 months.” They experimented with an advertising-based model (like Google), but academics are not a robust enough customer base to generate good advertising demand.

What this confab illuminated to me, more than anything, is the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of the problem. Complex, because of the different motives, constraints, latitude, and powers of the players involved. Simple, because when profit motive enters the picture, that radically shifts the power dynamic and end goal. It reorients the essence from public to private, from public good to corporate imperatives.

I have my own ideas on how to broaden access for unaffiliated scholars. If I sit and blue sky this with friends and fellow scholars, we come up with things like:

  • Establish Regional Scholars Programs at well-resourced universities, who would see the light on this issue and do the right thing for the larger community of scholars in their regions. They would give an intellectual home to unaffiliated scholars by extending library access (the old CSW Research Scholar program is an excellent model). Larger public and wealthy private universities could take the lead on this.
  • Create a national consortium of 5 to 6 R-1 universities willing to take on the role of “research stewards” for scholars working outside of large institutions. They would act as digital portals for these scholars nationally. These libraries would give remote digital access alone, and would help serve scholars in all regions, including lightly populated and rural areas.
  • Create some kind of digital portal through the Library of Congress for scholars nationally, for remote access to commercial digital databases.
  • Regional Library consortia: Create regional consortia of university, college, and major public libraries. This would expand the practice of R1s partnering with regional two-year and small colleges, to give the faculty at all of these institutions access to all library resources. Within these consortia, independent scholars might gain access through a major public library.
  • Establish a new “Alumni Scholar” category: Create a new, enhanced category of “alumni” for all PhDs, which would grant them library privileges for life at their PhD granting institution, including remote digital access. M.A. graduates might be given access as well. This could be a fee-for-use program, that would enhance alumni office efforts to cultivate loyalty from and connectivity to graduates.
  • Individual disciplinary departments, especially at R1s, would form programs for unaffiliated scholars in their region that would give them university affiliations (and library access), and integrate them into the life of their academic departments. They could create Listservs for local scholars linking them to department lectures and activities. This could be couched as part of the recognition of the trend toward career diversity in the humanities and social sciences.

Some of these ideas may be pie-in-the-sky, some more realistic. They might help only a few people at a time. They might require publishers, database companies, and libraries to renegotiate contracts around who would be included in a university’s user base, create new categories of users, and form “fee for access” models. They would reflect a recognition that growing numbers of people are affected by these trends, and that frustration, anger, and sadness have begun to mar the research process itself.

The one thing I know for certain, is we need to continue pushing on this issue, spreading the word, talking to colleagues “on the inside,” brainstorming, convening, and sharing these realities. The University of California’s recent decision to drop Elsevier is encouraging, and I hope will create pressure for more change. As I see it from my perspective as a historian, this is a crisis that will only grow, as long as universities continue to crank out PhDs, academic job markets constrict, and people like me do their best to make a living with our minds, outside of academia. If we can create a more equitable intellectual landscape for all scholars, regardless of university affiliation and with some recognition of the economic inequalities that scholars across these diverse landscapes face, this can only uplift our fields and, on a more human level, enable every scholar to fully realize their potential as thinkers and contributors to our common intellectual life.

Becky Nicolaides is a CSW Research Affiliate. She was the recipient of a Tillie Olsen Research Grant from CSW in 2017-2018. She is the editor of The Suburb Reader. She is at work on her third book, to be titled On the Ground in Suburbia: A Chronicle of Social and Civic Transformation in Los Angeles Since 1945, with major funding from the Haynes Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Huntington Library.

  1. For more on the scaling back of the CSW Research Scholars program, see Kathleen Sheldon, with Sandra Trudgen Dawson, “Independent Scholars, Feminist Research, and Diminishing Support,” CCWH (Coordinating Council for Women in History) Newsletter, 46, 4 (Dec 2016), 7-8.
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