Scholarly work by a hairdresser: what difference would OA make? And other questions!

I came across a BBC magazine news item about a scholarly hairdresser (from May 2013) and it got me thinking. The hairdresser that the article is about, Janet Stevens, wrote a scholarly article describing how intricate Roman hairstyles were achieved by sewing the hair in place. The article apparently took her about 7 years to perfect so this seemed like a well-researched piece of work.

With my experience in academic libraries, I was interested in how an amateur scholar might achieve a published article, so I dug a little further (I Googled!) and a Wall St Journal article gives more information: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324900204578286272195339456.html

Neither the BBC nor the WSJ seem to have cited Janet’s scholarly article. This is something that I believe needs addressing, because her article has clearly made an impact beyond the scholarly world but how can it be found and measured, other than by citations? Besides, it’s annoying for people who want to read further. They should cite the article! So I’ll practice what I preach and here is a reference to the article itself:

Stevens, J. (2008) ‘Ancient Roman Hairdressing: On (Hair)Pins and Needles’, Journal of Roman Archaeology, vol. 21, pp. 111 – 132. Available online: http://www.journalofromanarch.com/samples/v21.110_adj.pdf [2 Sept 2013]

(I note that the journal doesn’t seem to issue DOIs, which is a shame, when it comes to encouraging and tracking citations.)

When I heard this story, as a Librarian I had two main questions:

1) How did she get access to the scholarly materials to research and write about her idea in a scholarly way, for publication? Is this an example of where Open Access (OA) could open up scholarship to amateurs in order to progress their work and the field they research in?

2) What if she knew she had to pay a fee of $1000 or more dollars (OA requires the payment of a fee for publication) in order to get published in a scholarly journal: would that have put her off writing about it or even researching it so thoroughly in the first place?

I note that the article is currently available as a sample, without the need to subscribe to the journal. Effectively, it is an open access article already and if articles of significance are opened up even without fees being paid right now, they most likely could be OA published in future, when the researcher has no access to funds to pay for publication.

I’m not going to find instant answers to my questions but the WSJ article has an important clue in the comments section. One commenter Quoted some additional material from Janet Stevens’ interview:

“A: I am an independent researcher, but my husband is a professor of Italian at the Johns Hopkins University, so I have library privileges there. We are friendly with colleagues in the Classics/Archaeology department and at the Walters Art Museum. They were kind enough to send me articles and clippings, read drafts and help with some picky Latin, though I try not to impose.”

Aha! The Library was important to her research: an example of the impact of a library. And her connections to the scholarly community were also important to her work: connections between scholars were also something that my work at the University of Warwick library attempted to facilitate. We came across many scholars who were working hard to maintain their connections with the scholarly world, after completing a PhD or as retired scholars, and so on.

Does this clue mean that OA would make no difference to a case such as this? I can’t know without asking the researcher herself. Beyond this particular example, the question on my mind, and often on the mind of many librarians is “how can OA and Libraries combine to support scholarship in the best way possible? ” This article illustrates what many librarians experience daily: “scholarship” takes on many guises.

Janet Stevens’ case is intriguing because it is the very fact that she did not come through the traditional route to scholarly publication that enabled her to have her ground-breaking insight into the topic.

The role of the library in supporting her work is particularly interesting to me. The library (and anything else, like possibly OA) that supports amateur scholars seems to me to be important, because the work of amateur scholars seems significant to the development of some research fields (like History, my own first discipline). In developing OA as a publishing model, we must be careful not to put barriers in the way of people like Janet Stevens.

However, that’s how it seems to me. My next question is, how typical is Janet Stevens’ work and experience? The WSJ mentions another example from the same journal, of a soldier who discovered a hitherto unknown Roman fort in Iraq. (Another article not cited properly. Like a good Librarian, I found it and here is a reference: Wood, G.A. (2004) The Roman fort at Qubur al Bid, Mesopotamia Journal of Roman Archaeology, vol. 17 p397 (Note that this one is only available online for a fee.) If one journal, published for 25 years has two such examples, there must be plenty of others out there.

What about other disciplines? Janet Stevens had access to the materials she needed to progress her work, but some disciplines require very expensive equipment indeed. What role do and “should” amateur researchers play, in the scholarly world? If they have or should have no role (which I contest!), then libraries and publishers don’t really need to support them.

One final thought about this hairdresser’s research: what about the preservation of research data? What happens to the mannequin heads that exhibit her work?! I note that the Journal of Roman Archaeology itself links to Youtube clips of her recreations.

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