Authenticity, Ethics, and the Integrity of Digital Records

Easy arguments can be made in favor of revising and updating at least some portions of digitally-published manuscripts.  We have all had the experience, I’m certain, of finding an interesting online resource cited in an article’s reference list, clicking on the link or typing the URL into our favorite browser, and getting a “404 Not Found” error, indicating that the referenced article is no longer accessible at that address.  Most often, the article still exists online but its location will have shifted because of changes made to the host site’s directory structure or, equally often, its domain name.  The frequency with which these broken links and flawed references appear in online journals is a significant and ongoing concern for researchers, particularly since “[s]tudies of journal readers consistently show that reference linking is among the most highly valued features of electronic publications” (Meyer):

The problem, of course, is that reference quality and accuracy have been a known issue in journal publishing for many years. Even before the prevalence of electronic journal distribution, reference studies exposed sloppy reference work and exhorted authors and journal publishers to do better.[9]  Such studies continue in a number of fields and report reference errors in published articles that range from 4% to 48%, depending on the community and journal being studied.[10],[11] (Meyer)

An important ethical question for journal editors, then, is whether their desire to help researchers locate scholarly references as quickly and efficiently as possible outweighs their desire to protect and maintain the integrity of original source documents.  In other words, do they see reference lists as tools whose value depends on accuracy and currency, or do they regard them as historical artifacts whose value depends on stability and integrity?  The same question might be legitimately applied, as I suggested earlier, to the full corpus of any scholarly article: Does it achieve the greatest value through ongoing modification or perpetual stasis? 

And this leads to an even more important ethical question for editors: to what extent are they responsible for documenting modifications made to a published text?  Does their degree of responsibility depend on whether the changes are relatively minor, such as updating URLs in a reference list, or more substantive, as when an author wishes to add supplemental material?

Editors’ answers to these questions – and the ethical principles upon which those answers are based – have been of some concern to librarians and others who do archival work and whose professional responsibilities require them to maintain accurate records of historical and scholarly documents. Writing for the Council on Library and Information Resources CLIR Reports in 1992, Abby Smith noted with a certain degree of alarm that “[w]hen a [print] publisher goes to press with an error, he or she feels an obligation to publish an errata sheet....The publisher of a digital resource can simply go in and correct the text. Whether such a publisher chooses to note that change or not is related to his or her sense of obligation to the publication record, not to the truth of the text." Clifford Lynch, the Director of the Center for Networked Information, shares this unease but believes that editors and publishers in digital environments will likely impose even higher standards of authenticity and accountability on themselves than do their print counterparts, simply because digital publications are so malleable and easily manipulated.  In a fundamentally untrustworthy environment like the Internet, he argues, one which is “characterized by pervasive deceit, it will be necessary to provide verifiable proof for claims related to authorship and integrity that would usually be taken at face value in the physical world." Even so, he notes, “[v]irtually all determination of authenticity or integrity in the digital environment ultimately depends on trust,” and it is, in the final analysis, the responsibility of online journal editors to conduct themselves in ways that help to earn that trust.

This does not, however, mean that the only alternative to an open-ended, laissez-faire approach to post-publication edits is a staunch commitment to the sanctity of the original text. A middle ground, adapted from the practices of print publishing, can easily be struck here, one that allows editors and others to make changes to published texts, but which also records the nature, substance, and quantity of those changes for historical researchers and future archivists. This establishes what is often referred to as a document’s “provenance,” a record of its growth and development as well as the “chain of custody” that has brought it to its present form (Lynch). One way to create this provenance is to add errata and/or corrigenda at the end of each published piece where an edit has been made, similar to what was done with the Patton review in Across the Disciplines. Another approach, somewhat more challenging but hugely informative for historical researchers, is to retain a detailed chronology of changes that can be rolled back to see each article’s state as it existed at any single moment of time. (A quintessential example of this approach is Wikipedia's “View History” tab, as can be seen in this entry about the Battle of Gettysburg.)

As important and significant as provenance might be, however, it does not fully resolve potential questions that might be raised about an article’s status within a discipline if its claims and/or text have been revised subsequent to its initial publication.  When manuscripts are submitted to most academic journals, they must undergo a rigorous process of peer review, with authors responding to readers’ comments, refining claims and arguments, and bringing the piece to a point where it meets the community’s expectations and standards for disciplinary discourse and knowledge-making.  Allowing authors to make changes to their texts after those texts have been “officially” approved and published overtly undermines the entire peer review process.  Unless a journal’s editorial board implements a carefully structured process for peer review of all proposed edits, additions, and deletions, authorial revisions to a published article’s text might result in a document quite different from the one its initial reviewers approved for publication.  Aside from being an administrative nightmare and the source of many testy emails among authors, editors, and reviewers, an editorial policy that allows substantive text revisions could diminish the journal’s status within the field.  As Edward Valauskas, a member of the Board of Directors of the Library and Information Technology Association, notes, “It is important to recognize that a scholarly journal does more than just transfer information. If that was its sole function, there would be no need for the journal, its editors, referees, and publisher. More importantly, the journal, by the mere fact of publishing a given article, bestows its imprimatur…. The ultimate version of a paper is significant for both its content and its acceptance into a discipline's corpus of knowledge.”  Malleable texts with shifting messages, then, could easily sabotage the value of a journal’s imprimatur, and that could have dire consequences for funding, manuscript submissions, and scholarly reputation.

So given these sometimes conflicting ethical responsibilities – to professional communities, to researchers, to librarians, to archivists, to authors, to peer reviewers – and given their journals’ quest for self-definition and identity in a digital hybrid medium with historical ties to print culture, how do current editors of online academic journals weigh in on the ethics of revising published texts?