Not only are digital tools transforming the commercial publishing business (Well, hello there, Kindle!), they’re also changing–slowly and unevenly–the production and distribution of academic scholarship. However, it’s not enough to notice that scholars are distributing essays in non-traditional ways: via online-only journals like Postmodern Culture (one of the oldest of such journals) and Digital Defoe (one of the youngest), for example, or through pre-print sites like arXiv.org.
As Christine L. Borgman writes, we must also pay attention to the ways in which, “the wealth of online information, tools, and services [allow scholars] to ask new questions, create new kinds of scholarly products, and reach new audiences.” The digital tools have long been available to us, she points out, but it’s the “social and policy changes that are most profound.” This statement assumes, of course, that there actually will be social and policy changes to accompany the changes in scholarly work enabled by the changes in technology. Unless tenure and promotion criteria change, unless hiring practices change, unless grant awarding practices change, our scholarship will remain largely defined by the previous technological revolution: print.
And it’s worth remembering that print is, in fact, a technology and that its widespread adoption is responsible, in large part, for shaping the “traditional” idea of what “good scholarship” is. As Adrian Johns has chronicled, however, the technology of print was not greeted upon arrival as authoritative and trustworthy in and of itself. Instead, early modern European attitudes towards print came from the practices taking place in various locations, “from the printing house, through the bookshop and marketplace, to the coffeehouse, study, salon, and home–and thence back to the printing house again. Each of these sites played its part in determining how exactly it was that printing came to be so important…”
So what are the contemporary practices (and the contemporary locations, figuratively speaking) that will determine whether or not new, digital forms of scholarship become important? It’s one thing to say Yay, Internet!, but it’s quite another to develop some agreed upon criteria for evaluating digital scholarship.
At least one professional organization, the Modern Language Association, has stepped into the fray with a wiki entitled The Evaluation of Digital Work, which is–in my humble opinion–an example of the kind of leadership that needs to happen if our research is going to take advantage of the tools at our disposal. The MLA has been around for over 125 years and has over 30,000 members, and for this organization to start the process of articulating these criteria is a significant step.
I haven’t yet had much time to explore this resource, but I noted with interest the following sections:
Types of Digital Work – A list of types of academic digital work with thoughts as to how they might be presented for evaluation and how they might then be evaluated.Short Guide to Evaluation of Digital Work – A list of questions evaluators can ask about digital work being assessed for tenure and promotion.Stories – A collection of fictional and real cases with suggestions as to how these cases might be prepared and evaluated.Documenting a New Media Case – A section for faculty members on how to document and present digital work for tenure and promotion.
So what are your thoughts, dear reader? Are you experimenting with digital scholarly work? Are you finding that those who evaluate your work know how to do so? What do you see as the near (and not-so-near) future of such work? (Don’t forget that Nels sparked an interesting conversation along these lines back in early October.)