Special Challenges of Online Scholarship
Ben Alpers, July 2013
Additional responses to the roundtable can be found here.
Although civility and ethical behavior online are issues as old as the internet itself, we're still in the early days of considering the special challenges posed by online scholarship. The various traditional genres of scholarship, such as conference papers, journal articles, and books, have a complicated series of largely tacit conventions that govern ethical behavior in connection with them, conventions our socialization into which is an important, if little remarked upon, aspect of graduate education. For example, we all have a sense of what kinds of questions and comments are appropriate following a scholarly talk. By and large these tacit rules are enforced through a kind of self-policing. We all probably have stories of their being violated, but they are violated—or at least egregiously violated—relatively rarely.
For a variety of reasons, including both the newness of the web and the anonymity of many of its users, online bad behavior has been a more prevalent problem. Netizens have often had to develop more explicit rules of proper online behavior. They have also developed a more elaborate, if very decentralized, system for dealing with violations of these rules. For example, comment threads on blogs seem prone to flame wars and trolling. As a result, many blogs moderate comments, eliminate (or disemvowel) those comments that violate the blog's rules, and eventually ban commentators who violate them repeatedly. Such systems have frequently been adopted by academic blogs. But they tend to be built around a model of blog-as-private-space that is at odds with the traditional understandings of academic "space" as a kind of intellectual commons. For example, the long Comments Policy of the academic group blog Crooked Timber begins: "We welcome comments from readers on posts, but you do so as guests in our private space. Concepts of ‘censorship’ are not applicable." Though the internet's rules systems have, in many ways, made the web a more civil place than it was two decades ago, they will need to be adapted to fit emerging online scholarship if we are to maintain a sense of open, public scholarly space.
Historians will need to engage in more explicit discussions of online behavioral norms than we are accustomed to. And these discussions ought to be in the context of a larger consideration of how online activities can enhance the production and dissemination of historical knowledge. New digital technologies can be enhanced by old, scholarly technologies like peer review. Online genres, such as the blog, are loose and capacious. Rather than merely considering how to defend ourselves from their potential abuses, we should actively adapt them to our own purposes.
Benjamin Alpers is associate professor of history at Oklahoma University Honors College and blogger at The United States Intellectual History Blog.