From the Technology column of the January 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

Disseminating History in the Digital Age

John K. Thornton, January 2011

Before the advent of the internet and search engines, a common way in which historians searched for relevant articles was to browse journals and library shelves. They would go to a journal of known relevance to their research and good reputation, look through its table of contents and locate relevant articles. An experienced researcher would know a dozen or more journals that were relevant, and would probably restrict the search to those journals. In fact, over a few years of research one probably had a good recollection of the TOCs of most of these journals over several years, and return trips to the library might be only to refresh. These articles would be the baseline for following up footnotes in books and journals to specific articles and other books. Along the way one learned the relevant primary sources and repositories (outside of what one always learned by visiting archives directly).

There are obvious reasons why this strategy worked. Journals and books from university presses were refereed, and a team of scholars worked in tandem as editors and peer reviewers, and the results were often reviewed in the same journals. The production of scholarly journals and books was also limited by the cost of copyediting, printing, and distribution, a task necessarily handled by academic presses, which also exercised quality control over their product. Moreover, this also meant that the number of articles or books published was limited.

All of this is so well known that one needs hardly dwell on it, except that the advent of the internet has undoubtedly greatly upset the model. First of all, of course, it is extremely easy to get one’s idea “published” these days on the internet. Indeed, anyone who has an internet account can acquire sufficient web space at a very low cost and can mount articles or books on it. A good deal of new and often high quality scholarly information can be found online, in web sites, blogs, e-books or digital articles. It is the nature of web technology that such work has no limitations—it can be produced anywhere, and at any length.

A great deal of such scholarship does not find its way into academic discourse because it has not received the requisite imprimatur of publication in a refereed journal or a book from a reputable scholarly press, or a trade publication known to have adequate standards. For this reason academics ignored the web for a long time, and counseling their students to do so as well, clung to the substantial gate-keeping mechanism that made the printed journal and book the mainstay of dissemination of academic knowledge.

In the past five years, however, the way historical research is being done has been revolutionized by web-based technology. Databases like Project Muse, Persée, and JSTOR suddenly made thousands of articles in hundreds of journals available online. Google Books and Digital Text Archive brought whole books to the web, certainly many primary sources or classics, but also a good number of classic books. The availability of limited preview and searchability on Google Books also made it possible to read and browse many thousands of recently published books. Accessing books through Google Books allowed scholars to determine quickly how important a particular book would be for them, and whether it was worth visiting the library or seeking a copy on interlibrary loan.

Another new development, the portable reader (such as Kindle, Nook, or the iPad), has made electronic publication of books even more attractive to scholars and publishers alike. The possibility of maintaining whole libraries in a single device, with its capacities to search, mark up, add notes, and quote, all make digital texts superior in many ways to printed texts. I myself discovered that in the past few years I have done more and more work sitting on a couch or at a desk with not one scrap of paper near me. I have done this with just a computer, and only on rare occasions do I have to bring additional materials, typically books that have not been digitized, to my space. Sometimes I use two computers to maximize screen space, although potentially one of the computers could be a Kindle or equivalent in time. Indeed, I have “digitized” books that I actually own which I feel are vital (and my past handwritten notes) by scanning or photographing with my digital camera precisely so I could use them in this way. Indeed, I am increasingly impatient with nondigital products because I have to carry them and they limit where I can work.

The digital revolution has started to make the possibility of electronic-only books and journals a reality. In addition to the ease of acquisition and convenience of use, electronic publication can revolutionize the world of the journal. The print journal appeared a number of discrete times per year, often just three or four times. Editors needed to collect a minimum number of articles to put together an issue, and deadlines were crucial to this. Likewise, printing considerations put a maximum limit on the number of articles a journal could publish. But an electronic journal can stream publications, producing articles as soon as they are copyedited and ready to publish. They have no limitations on the number of articles they could potentially publish or when they can publish them.

E-publication will have less of an impact on printed books. Although an electronic edition is not bound by some printing considerations, such as page length, book length is probably more restricted by traditional criteria such as readability and the ability of an author to sustain an argument and retain the attention of readers over many pages. Potentially, e-books can present more images and graphics or might build in features such as video, animations, and much more color. But the basic content may not change much.

One can easily imagine a future academic world in which the e-journal and the e-book are the only form in which scholarship is presented.

As attractive as the e-journal and e-book might be, and as easy as they are to publish and disseminate on the web, the new media are not likely to change the way scholarships is created, judged, and used. It is unlikely that the quantity of scholarship will increase simply because a greater capacity to publish at lower costs does. Scholarship requires the labor of research and writing, polishing and submission. Few finely polished works remain unpublished for simple lack of space in journals. The quality of scholarship is also not likely to be adversely affected just because digital publication is easier. Scholars will continue to seek out prestigious, peer-reviewed journals to publish their work.

The increasing use of e-publishing has also led to a new phenomenon: search engines that promise to revolutionize the way scholarship is done. It is now possible to use search and browse functions on databases such as JSTOR or Project Muse to locate articles relevant to a research project quickly, and since so many articles are also available online, to download them to one’s computer. The more recent advent of Google Scholar, which has additional useful functions of links to citations of the article and combines various databases (Google Books and some other sites on the web), has continued this trend. Google Scholar, which will probably even become better as time goes on, is likely to allow a scholar to develop a bibliography relevant to her or his topic very quickly and the downloading capacities to assemble the texts on a computer equally rapidly may fundamentally change academic research.

Increasingly, scholars are not following up footnotes or browsing journals to locate research information. Instead of browsing, they are, in the words of one scholar, “parachuting” into a field through the use of these search tools. The tools make little use of traditional cataloguing and even shelf distribution as is done in libraries, but use a radically new approach that groups articles and books by their search terms rather than anything else.

While some scholars argue that the use of parachuting as a strategy will damage the integrity of journals, by ignoring some of the criteria which editors chose to put journals together (grouping similar articles and running forums, discussions and the like), it is not likely to reduce the necessity of journals themselves, even if they no longer exist in print.

Another worry expressed by scholars and librarians is the use of word and phrase searches in books. This strategy may well put the fact ahead of the argument, and allow scholars to mine books for their facts without seeing the facts in a larger context. Again, I think this is an unnecessary worry. It is true that in mining primary sources, it is sometimes helpful to use word and phrase searches. But in truth, this is not fundamentally different from using a book’s index, only that it allows a researcher to expand the index by creative use of the potentials of the technology. Any scholar doing serious research still has to consider context, and failure to do so will weaken scholarship and will also be immediately detectable in the review process. One has to assume that training of scholars will continue to focus on context building as well as fact mining.

The advent of these tools has thus changed the way research is done, and may very well change the way publication is done. For example, I can say personally that I would prefer to publish my work in journals that are indexed on Project Muse or will appear immediately in Google Scholar searches, especially if I want it widely read. I am less likely to consider publication in journals that do not offer this connection, or to offer my work for books that collect chapters thematically for the same reason.

I also do not think that the assessment of scholarship will be changed by the advent of the new search technologies. Quality of publications will still be determined by the reputation of the publisher, whether a journal or a press, for the same reason that researchers will continue to pay attention to the reputation of the press or journal, that the refereeing process insures quality.

Another new development from the web deserves consideration and that is the emergence of Wikipedia as a source of information. Many scholars looked askance at Wikipedia when it first emerged, indeed reviled it as a source of false or disinformation.

In spite of the misgivings, however, Wikipedia has become better and better over time. It is clear that on the whole the editorial strategy has kept it from producing nonsense, and has done a great deal to keep the project from being sabotaged by people with grudges, conspiracy theorists, or one-issue zealots. Such rewriting is attempted, no doubt, but is usually dealt with quickly.

Wikipedia also promises to be much more than just an encyclopedia. Already some articles are building in historiography sections in which arguments are summarized and presented. Discussion running on other tabs, and the history of editing allow interested parties to trace the development of controversies over time, and as Wikipedia gets older, one will be able to trace historiography this way.

Wikipedia now has articles on primary sources: for example, on medieval chronicles, which give virtually the whole textual apparatus of the introductions, often TOCs and even excerpts. There are whole texts that are available either through Wikisource, or through links to Google Books. Indeed the articles on such texts allow venerable 19th-century editions to be updated, or users cautioned about pitfalls in editions.

The architecture of Wikipedia allows an interested person to pursue these topics in depth, but even in its ad-hoc method of growth, Wikipedia is creating hierarchies of knowledge, with general statements followed by links to specific topics, to arguments about the topics, to the primary sources.

For these reasons, we should embrace Wikipedia. There is a great deal we can contribute to the project. We do not have to sit down and write whole articles, we can modify existing ones. We can write as much or as little as we want. We can change or contest what is on the page, and we should.

The new technologies of publishing and disseminating scholarship are thus offering new opportunities for collaboration among scholars to advance knowledge, while at the same time making that knowledge (and that of previous generations) more accessible. There are many drawbacks, no doubt, at present, but as the technologies continue to improve, the future of digital scholarship seems certain, bright, and alluring.

John Thornton, a member of the AHA’s Research Division, is professor of history at Boston University. His publications include Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500–1800 and (with Linda Heywood) Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660.