Results from the editors’ survey suggest that they have mixed views about making changes to published texts in online venues, even when the technology makes those changes relatively easy to enact.   While many editors are willing to make trivial or relatively minor edits, and sometimes without errata (which might be the most significant difference between print and digital technologies in this regard), for the most part, they continue to see published texts as inviolate and resist making substantive alterations. Though this is an editorial practice that print and online journals generally share, it would be a mistake to assume that digital journals accede to the fixity of published documents simply because the conventions of print culture compel them.  Rather, this policy seems to reflect an awareness, as Valauskas maintains, that scholarly publications owe at least part of their value to the imprimatur bestowed by a journal, which itself is a consequence of that journal’s system of disciplinary norming through rigorous peer review.   The sense of value and prestige that attends this review process also furnishes published articles with a meaning that is framed by a particular context and a specific moment in a discipline’s history.  Subsequent modifications to these texts, therefore, could not only risk destabilizing the historical record, but also raise questions about a journal’s or article’s inherent value over time. 

Still, the editorial positions and perspectives expressed in this survey apply specifically to scholarly work that is published as traditional “articles” in conventionally constructed “academic journals.”  They do not apply, I think, to other forms of scholarly publication that journals could sponsor but that might be more avant garde, more social, more interactive, and more alive.  Researchers, for instance, could create “organic texts” whose meanings changed and transformed as new data were produced and new resources added.[3]  These texts could be kept closed (for the authors alone to revise) or open (as with wikis, so virtually anyone could contribute).  It would be interesting to see how such experimental, iconoclastic forms were received, especially in fields outside of rhetoric and composition, and how scholars would react to online texts that suddenly shifted positions or deleted entire passages that had been present just a few days before.  Would (could?) these texts be considered scholarship?  Would they be subject to the same sort of distrust that many academics – and non-academics – have for Wikipedia?  How could these texts be framed or guided to ensure they would be perceived as valuable by members of a discipline or discourse community?

If online journal editors believe, in truth, that digital publishing venues need to develop editorial policies that reflect the possibilities inherent in the medium, this might be one place to start. 

Let me close by sharing a brief anecdote about a CCCC presentation I attended a number of years ago.  Two of my colleagues, Janice Walker and Mark Richardson, were on the same panel, and though I don’t remember the session title or the names of individual papers, I’m certain it had something to do with the use of technology in the classroom.  I remember Mark standing up when it came time for him to deliver his talk, calling up the first slide of his PowerPoint presentation, and saying something like this: “When I submitted my proposal for this talk about a year ago, I had a very clear idea what points I wanted to make, and I knew just what I wanted to say about them.  Over the last several weeks, I put together a detailed presentation with eighteen slides, and I was completely prepared to give my little speech today and persuade you to agree with my point of view.  But between the time I got on the plane to come here two days ago and now, I’ve decided that my whole argument and everything I planned to say is total bullshit.”  The audience, myself included, cracked up – partly from surprise and partly because we had no idea what was going to happen next.  “So I’ve decided to dump my slide show,” he continued, turning off the projector, “and instead, I’m just going to tell you how I’m thinking about this issue right now.”

I’ve often thought about that presentation – what a great job Mark did speaking extemporaneously, how courageous it was to put himself on the spot like that – but more than anything (and I told him this at the end of the session), I felt it was the purest example I had ever seen of what it truly meant to be an active, reflective scholar, not limited by his initial proposal or preliminary ideas, and not afraid to revise, reconceive, or reject earlier patterns of thought. It strikes me now that had the initial version of his presentation been published before he spoke at the C's, he would have relished the opportunity to dive back into the text and disavow nearly everything he had written before.  This is hardly a practice I would advocate (or even recommend very strongly) in every situation, but digital technologies certainly make it possible.  If it can be accomplished ethically and with due consideration for the needs of all the stakeholders involved, why not?

[3] Additional challenges attend publication forms like these, not the least of which is the current model for demonstrating scholarly productivity in most institutions.  A scholarly research agenda pursued over several years will often lead to multiple publications, each of which will count separately in promotion and tenure reviews.  If the results of this ongoing research are appended or incorporated into a single online piece that grows over time, it is doubtful the work would be valued or credited in the same way.