Crowdsourcing transcriptions of open archives

This article began life as a presentation for Open Access week at La Trobe University, 23 October 2017. Thanks to La Trobe for inviting me to speak.


Poster for the Real Face of White Australia Transcribe-a-thon MoAD at Old Parliament House 9-10 September 2017, showing a handprint, an identity photo and a bureaucratic form in the background.A little while back, I travelled to Canberra with my partner, Sophie Couchman, to help Tim Sherratt and Kate Bagnall with their ‘Real Face of White Australia’ project. We spent the weekend transcribing documents relating to the history of White Australia, and Australia’s historical attempts to exclude people who were not ‘white’.

First, a bit of history. There was a period (not so long ago, in the scheme of things) when Australia used a bureaucratic system to bar entry to anyone who wasn’t white. As part of that process, we used a ‘dictation test’ to bar entry to anyone deemed undesirable.

If you were already a resident in Australia (because, for example, you had been born here) and didn’t look white, you needed to get an exemption from the dictation test before you went overseas. If you didn’t, you might not be allowed to re-enter the country. These ‘Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test’ are all stored in Australian archives, and provide valuable insights into that period of history.

Unfortunately, they are currently all locked away. Not because of the issues that normally relate to Open Access: ‘Open’ versus ‘Closed’ legal permissions (although there are issues there) or ‘ ‘Free speech’ versus ‘Free beer’ (versus ‘Free puppies’) monetary issues. No. This information is locked away because it is handwritten on paper. Even where the archive has digitised the certificates, there is no reliable way to optically recognize (OCR) the characters.

We lose sight, sometimes, of how much stuff is still locked away on paper, in handwriting. That’s where I came in. With my partner, Sophie, I went to Canberra and spent a couple of days transcribing this handwritten data. Read more of this post

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More Open Access – take the pledge

7i8skr7iEva Alisic is a senior research fellow at Monash University, Australia, where she leads the Trauma Recovery Lab. She is also a visiting scholar at the University Children’s Hospital Zurich, Switzerland.

She studies how children, young people, and families cope with traumatic experiences, and how professionals can support them.

A generous and engaging colleague, and a scholar with great initiative, Eva has just finished a stint as co-chair of the Global Young Academy.

Eva writes on the Trauma Recovery blog and tweets via @EvaAlisic.


Two islands: The island of Doctor Moreau is closed and sad; while the island of Doctor More Open is welcoming and happy.

The Island of Doctor More Open, by Rob Jenkins.

“Come on in, the water’s fine!” tweeted Jonathan, one of the Research Whisperers.

I hope you’ll agree with him and join us for a More Open Access splash.

Why do we need more Open Access (OA)?

Many research articles are still not available

Despite substantial movement towards Open Science, we’re not there yet.

Many papers are still behind paywalls. And even those that are shared in repositories are often not indexed in Google Scholar, a frequent starting point for literature searches.

This is a serious problem for several reasons. I’ll focus on the practical ones. Most importantly, we expect practitioners in medicine, psychology, education and other fields to conduct ‘evidence-based practice’. How is that possible if they do not have access to that evidence base? The same is true for policy advisors – how can they base their policies on evidence, if they don’t have access to the evidence base?

Also, more and more citizen scientists are doing excellent, relevant projects. They could do even better if they had access to the literature. With much academic research being conducted with public funds, there is a moral imperative for those projects’ findings to be made publicly available.

Finally, a substantial number of researchers still can’t access all literature. This is a problem, especially in low-resource settings. There have been several great initiatives to improve access for researchers in low- and middle-income countries, from the Egyptian Knowledge Bank to Sci-Hub. These are partial solutions, and they are not known or accessible to all. There are grey areas when using ‘pirate’ sites such as Sci-Hub or #ICanHazPDF: access to research should be legal and free. Yet, arguably, these methods only exist because of a publishing system that is failing.

Read more of this post