In the previous post I discussed the problems with conventional publishing in the Humanities and referred to The Modern Language Association’s 2002 statement on the future of scholarly publishing. That report eyed the digital realm and asked the question, "Is Electronic Publication the Solution?"
Its answer was tentative and appropriately qualified--after all, electronic publishing is still in its swaddling clothes and raises as many problems, perhaps, as it may appear to solve (I'll get into all of that soon enough!). Importantly, however, the report presented the electronic realm not simply as a field of potential opportunity for publishing, but as a field already serving the interests of humanities research: "Online journals are already being used by many scholars in our fields, and this use is likely to increase." Citing a Columbia University report, it stated that "scholars in the humanities have become regular users of electronic resources such as bibliographies, encyclopedias, concordances, and databases available through university libraries."No kidding!
While such observations can be read as gross understatement just these few years later, the connection being made here--between electronic research and electronic publishing--is critical. Research and publishing are married in an important cycle of production and consumption. If in their research humanities scholars rely upon and enjoy the benefits of digital scholarship, it would seem to follow that in their publishing they would treat things electronic with due respect. But unfortunately, today it is still possible for academics (especially in the humanities) to use subject gateways, Google Scholar, myriad databases, and a host of online journals--all while disparaging the validity of electronic scholarship or ruling it out altogether as a valid outlet for real scholarship. There is no hypocrisy in this since the electronic medium, to them, is merely a delivery vehicle. Everything else about academic scholarship remains the same.
I think that as long as electronic publishing is seen merely as a solution to the (largely economic) problems currently attending print scholarship, then the opportunities for online scholarship will be as modest as that perspective. In an early assessment of electronic scholarship, John Unswerth noted that in academia discussion of the computer realm "has generally fallen prey to the impulse to celebrate or to condemn." A middle way is probably the best. From my own perspective, however, too many are so frozen within traditional concepts of publishing that a few immodest proposals about the potential for academic discourse in the digital realm are in order just to jar loose the status quo. Don't worry, though. It will be a few posts yet before I suggest that massive multiplayer online gaming environments and other such spectacles of the digital era can be significant modes of scholarly inquiry...
Everyone knows publishing (like so much of modern culture) is headed toward an electronic existence, but whether electronic publishing in academia is translation, migration, evolution, or revolution depends upon one’s concept of electronic publishing. That's the subject of tomorrow's post, "Defining Electronic Publishing," to be followed by posts surveying four general categories of electronic publishing.
What do you think are the opportunities (or the pitfalls) for the humanities within electronic publishing?