Scholarly Texts that Breathe

The request described in the first scenario is similar to one I received in March 2011 from Martha Patton regarding a piece she had published some four months earlier in the online journal Across the Disciplines (email reproduced with permission)

While I was more than willing to make this minor change and note it with an erratum that would be added (and linked) at the end of the online review, I was struck by the ease with which such a change could be made, the likelihood it would never be noticed or discovered if I chose not to mark it, and the power I had as an editor to reshape text that already existed in published form.  I could, quite literally, rewrite history, and I could do so with such little effort that even George Orwell might have been taken aback.

The extent to which this power might be utilized in an online environment where nearly all texts are accessible and malleable is the fundamental challenge posed by the second scenario in my introduction.  While minor updates and edits might be thought of as inconsequential or even beneficial to future scholars – as with an amended reference citation, for instance – significant changes to previously published texts, particularly if they affect an original document’s arguments, evidence, or conclusions, are far more problematic.

Or are they?

Here’s a brief excerpt of a piece I published in a print journal, The Writing Instructor, in 1992.  The article reported on a study I conducted about the prevalence of term paper mills and the writing processes used by a freelance writer who produced close to a hundred papers a year for one of these companies.  The snippets of text highlighted in red refer to specific pieces of factual information regarding the number of papers produced by the company and per-page fees for custom-written or previously-written papers in its catalogue.  The most current information posted on the company’s Web site, however, shows that its fee structure has changed significantly and as a consequence, my calculations about the number of papers produced per year are likely flawed as well.  So not only is my scholarship now out of date, but it’s virtually inaccessible (pun intended), and parts of it are just plain wrong.

Places to Update.jpg

How difficult would it be to update this information to reflect current quantities and dollar amounts and make the original scholarship valid once more?  Very difficult, so long as the article exists solely in print form.  Errata would have to be published in a subsequent issue of TWI, and indexing services would have to notice and catalogue any changes.  Even so, chances are good that future researchers would overlook these errata even if they were published, so the whole process of updating and revising the information would likely be wasted effort.  Theoretically, a “new, updated edition” of the complete article could be published, resolving the problems posed by the need to track and index errata, but this is a very rare practice in journal publishing for practical as well as economic reasons.

By contrast, if the article were published in an online, digital form, making changes would be comparatively easy.  With a few minutes of time and a couple of quick keystrokes, my research study would no longer be a mere snapshot of history in a dated context and a frozen moment in time – it would now reflect the most current and useful information for a contemporary audience.  More, the article would become a living document, a kind of author’s wiki, as relevant and up to date as I chose to keep it.  It would be subject to regular adjustments and revisions as new facts were uncovered and new reflections and analyses brought to bear.

The possibilities suggested by this approach to digital scholarship are seductive and compelling.  Isn’t this kind of reflection, rethinking, and revision at the very heart of the scholarly enterprise?  Why shouldn’t our publications, which are among the most prominent representations of our publicly-accessible scholarly discourse, reflect the same ongoing research and thinking processes we claim to value?  Admittedly, the idea of perpetually-under-revision scholarly publications is unsettling.  It upends our comfortable, ingrained confidence in the stability of published texts and, to some extent, the integrity of the historical record itself.  But to what extent are these anxieties actually warranted, and to what extent might they be attributable to a well-rehearsed but possibly misplaced allegiance to the standards and conventions of print culture in a digital age that has moved well beyond them?  Milad Doueihi, the author of Digital Cultures, believes that the influence of print is pervasive and virtually inescapable in our culture, even among those who might be the most enthusiastic about embracing the possibilities inherent in a digital medium:

[T]he digital environment is at the moment experiencing a crisis derived from its early reliance and desire to carry over and extend elements of print …into its own, and from its current desire, in part due to the development of new technologies and their associated emerging practices, to liberate itself from the weight of such a burden. (p. xiv)

The ability to create and sustain “living, breathing texts” in digital environments, open-access and freely editable, is not new. Wikis such as Wikipedia and the DC Comics Database Wiki have been engaging in this sort of communal knowledge-construction for years, and though the quality of information posted on such sites has been a matter of some debate (cf. “Assessing” 2005; Chesney 2006), the model itself – reflecting an awareness that knowledge is always in a state of contention, always negotiated, always subject to new research findings and information – seems well suited to the practice of scholarly discourse. But what are the consequences of moving to such a model in academic publishing? What are the benefits? What potential drawbacks and dangers exist?

In this Web text, I want to try to answer those questions two ways. First, by considering some of the ethical and pragmatic constraints that influence our sense of what is possible and acceptable in academic publishing, and second, by investigating what policies current editors of online academic journals follow when asked to update or revise already-published work.