We’re Just Not Sure About This “Digital” “Publishing” Thing the Kids Are So Keen On

by Scott McLemee on December 8, 2006

A long article in this morning’s Inside Higher Ed covers the findings and recommendations in the MLA’s final report on tenure. Much of the same material is covered by The Chronicle of Higher Education here, I’d guess, but who knows? Short of selling blood — and quite a lot of it — I cannot afford to read anything they publish.

Anyway, the IHE op-ed section also has an essay by Michael Bérubé, who was on the MLA committee that drew up the report. The part that really caught my attention — especially given the overwhelming yet baffled concern regarding digital matters expressed throughout the Association of American University Presses convention this summer — was the following:

About the digital age, most doctoral departments are largely clueless: 40.8 percent report no experience evaluating journal articles in electronic format, and almost two-thirds (65.7 percent) report no experience evaluating monographs in electronic format. This despite the fact that the journal Postmodern Culture, which exists only in electronic form, has just celebrated its 15th birthday. Online journals have been around for some time now, and online scholarship is of the same quality as print media, but referees’ and tenure committees’ expectations for the medium have lagged far behind the developments in the digital scholarly world. As Sean Latham, one of the members of the Task Force, said at the 2005 MLA convention in Washington, “If we read something through Project Muse, are we supposed to feel better because somewhere there is a print copy?” For too many scholars, the answer is yes: The scholarly quality of the PDF on your screen is guaranteed by the existence of the print version, just as your paper money is secured by the gold of Fort Knox.

Someone has preemptively articulated the wisdom of all IHE trolls in a single, concentrated expression of trollishness, as follows:

I get madder than a Nancy Pelosi voter in a restaurant that doesn’t serve white wine when I read self-indulgent flapdoodle about this so-called “scholarship”! And it’s not even selling! So apparently there are pampered professors writing “books” and “articles” that people don’t even want to read, while those same decent, hard-working, blue-collar, hard-working people are losing their jobs and their health coverage. And we’re supposed to care about this at “Inside Higher Education”? This isn’t just borderline insane. It’s completely insanely insane. I say let’s close the university libraries so that people can get their jobs back.

Thanks, consolidated IHE troll. You just can’t argue with logic like that. Why would you even try?

{ 2 trackbacks }

Crooked Timber » » Pure Gold, Like in Fort Knox
12.08.06 at 4:06 pm
Hippo Dignity » This “Internets” thing the kids are so crazy about
12.08.06 at 4:12 pm



John Emerson 12.08.06 at 12:01 pm

Beyond wanting assurance that there’s a dead-tree copy stored in Fort Knox, some scholars (one that I know of, anyway) are worried enough about the internet cooties that they’d rather wait a week for the ILL photocopy than read something right now on their screen

Someone’s gotta tell people that “internet viruses” are digital rather than analog, and can’t leap from your screen and give you AIDS or Ebola.


Rich Puchalsky 12.08.06 at 12:08 pm

But if you get an electronic copy of something, it might later be *modified* in some way. Only paper has that comforting deadness that ensures that what was peer reviewed, and what you just read, will forevermore be the only version of that particular paper.


Donald A. Coffin 12.08.06 at 12:20 pm

“For too many scholars, the answer is yes: The scholarly quality of the PDF on your screen is guaranteed by the existence of the print version, just as your paper money is secured by the gold of Fort Knox.”

Well, too bad for them, because the value of your paper money has NOTHING TO DO WITH GOLD IN FORT KNOX, The value of your paper money rests entirely in your belief, and in the belief of others who accept it in payment for goods and services, that the paper money has value–that others will accept it in payment for goods and services. In the same way, the value of a scholarly publication depends on the willingness of readers (and non-readers, who may be asked to evaluate it) to believe in the value of the publication (including belief in the “value” of the publisher).


Grand Moff Texan 12.08.06 at 12:39 pm

I say let’s close the university libraries so that people can get their jobs back.

Well, that might slow down the spread of STD’s on campus…


Adam Kotsko 12.08.06 at 12:50 pm

I choose to believe that the reference to the gold standard was artful and clever.


gzombie 12.08.06 at 12:56 pm

Adam, your interpretation is not persuasive because YOU ARE NOT USING ALL CAPS.


Grand Moff Texan 12.08.06 at 1:21 pm

I would call the statement “ironic,” Adam, but unfortunately that word has been drained of all meaning.


Steve LaBonne 12.08.06 at 1:47 pm

But wouldn’t closing the UCLA library cost jobs at the company that manufactures Tasers?


Matt Kuzma 12.08.06 at 2:47 pm

Donald A. Coffin,

You correctly identified the genius of Berube’s analogy. These professors believe in some kind of backing that doesn’t exist. Fiat money isn’t backed by anything just as the fact that something is in print in no way ensures its quality or justifies its scholarship.


Nathaniel 12.08.06 at 3:06 pm


I don’t know if you’re being sarcastic or not, but in general I don’t think that applies to downloading PDF copies of journal articles. First, since the journals (mostly comforting dead objects) have probably already been sent out to libraries and, second, because you can download that version you just read onto your computer. If the journal is some mendacious editing outfit hiding behind a legitimate peer-reviewed outlet, and you notice this, you can then clarify in your notes that a copy in PDF of the article as you read it resides somewhere you’ve uploaded it and then provide a URL.
Actually, answering Rich has got me kind of worried. Has anyone had a case where a PDF of a journal article provided through the usual university subscription has turned out not to conform with the print journal?


Scott McLemee 12.08.06 at 3:10 pm

I assumed the Fort Knox reference was a joke. It reminded me of listening to talk radio in Texas during the late 1970s, with people fretting endlessly about how going off the gold standard had ruined the country.


Colin Danby 12.08.06 at 4:02 pm

Yer preaching to the choir here, Scott. Folks who cruise the blogs for a little chat are already downloading and uploading and searching and finding new conversations.

#5, 9, 11 are right on the Fort Knox point, which #3 makes nicely even while missing the joke. There’s no need to be warehousing moldy paper when you have JStor, which rocks. Searchable text makes scholarship, including older work that might never get read again, far more accessible and visible. Give us another 20 years and we should be over the paper fetish.


John Emerson 12.09.06 at 11:21 am

Just to note that JSTOR and Project Muse are both behind a paywall, keeping riffraff such as me from reading their stuff at home. If you want to be safe from my scurrilous attacks, publish everything in JSTOR or Muse and you will be safe!


BillCross 12.09.06 at 5:52 pm

also many scientific journal are only free to you if your library also subscribes to the journal (or you subscribe personally). For someone at a “podunk” school in the midwest, this means it is way cheaper to ILL them ($0.10 per page) versus typically $30 for the copyright charge and the ingenta (or whatever service you use) charge


Ironic Commentator 12.10.06 at 2:18 pm

Wait a second. You’re telling me that my paper money is worthless?

Well, I don’t know if I can trust you “online people.” I’m going to go and see whether there’s a print version of this blog somewhere.

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