Week Eleven Reading Blog: Does Advancing Digital Scholarship Mean that the Book has to Die?

The “book is dead.” This rather stunning statement by Tim Hitchcock in his Journal of Digital Humanities article titled “Academic History Writing and its Disconnects” did not sit well with me.  As a lead-in argument to a host of online readings in support of born-online digital scholarship and open peer review, Hitchcock’s assertion seemed oddly out of place and rankled me to no end. Granted, the “digital turn” is akin to an industrial-revolution-style sea change in how historians research, write, and present history, and we have an obligation to get on board — like it or not. However, the book, a roughly 1,200-year-old means of communicating causal and critical thinking in nearly all languages, still has relevance. Why does the advent of digital scholarship presume the death of a world-wide literary form that has proven effective for centuries and continues to do so in the present?  Digital scholarship can and should supplement the book form, be it digital or in hard copy, in as many ways as possible without shutting down the most effective means in human history of communicating ideas and arguments. I have yet to visit a digital-history Web site that can advance effectively and concisely, using randomized hyperlinks, visualizations, and the like, an argument that demonstrates critical and causal thinking.  William G. Thomas III mused openly about these challenges in posing questions about, and providing some recommended solutions for, the challenges inherent in presenting a cogent argument  in the form of a born-digital online article. Thus, in my mind, rumors of the book’s death as a form of advancing ideas and arguments have been greatly exaggerated.

Many of the authors in this week’s readings advocate very strongly for open peer review and the academy’s recognition of digital history as a legitimate form of historical scholarship. These arguments resonate strongly with me, because so many of these new digital tools, tools that take most of us (especially me!) outside our comfort zones, can clearly do so much to advance our knowledge of the past, particularly in the visual realm.  In particular, the “social interaction” stemming from online peer reviews as discussed by Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett is a great enhancement to the often close-minded peer-review processes that scholars face today.  Most importantly, these technological advances allow  historians to reach a wider audience online, especially for those scholars and general readers who feel that by commenting on a draft digital article, they can help advance the argument and thus have some “skin in the game” — somewhat like the folks who contribute to Wikipedia but in a more substantive way. The success enjoyed by Melissa Terras’s use of social media to publicize her journal articles is a case in point. The spike in downloads after blogging about her articles was amazing and a testimony to her ingenuity.

Open peer review as a working concept has a great deal of merit. Even blogging and its attendant informality can do more to advance an article’s argument than the closed-off, formalized peer reviews that most journal articles employ as scholarly filters today. I have never been a fan of anonymous peer reviews, mainly because they allow the nameless reviewers to take cheap shots or to grandstand their own theories at the expense of another person’s scholarship.  I have published two books with peer-reviewed academic presses and one journal article, and I found the peer-review processes in both cases to be useful in some instances and just plain aggravating in others. The most useful feedback emphasized tangible ways to clarify an argument or a certain point in the body of the work. The least useful feedback came in the form of something like “why your book or article should conform more to my own scholarship in that same area.” Thankfully, most of my editors were always quick to see through those “grandstanders” and dismiss their criticisms as “off the mark.” But those anonymous comments always left me feeling that some fellow scholars tended to behave too jealously or guardedly toward new scholarship in their respective fields. In one case, I pulled an article from a well-known, peer-reviewed journal because the feedback by one reviewer was unbelievably mean-spirited and grossly unfounded. The feedback had almost nothing to do with the subject of my article but everything to do with that reviewer’s own ideas about a tangential aspect of the topic.  Ultimately, I withdrew the article when the editor told me that I should “consider” revising the article completely (!) to satisfy that particular unnamed reviewer’s  comments. Clearly, the editor was afraid to run afoul of that reviewer; and, as a result, I walked. Thanks, but no thanks. And because the reviewer was anonymous, I could not interact with him or her to learn the true motives behind the comments. Thus, I  tend to agree with Tim Hitchcock’s implied message that peer-filtered journals and books, by virtue of the very formats they employ and that they protect ruthlessly, can represent a type of “fascist authority” unto themselves. Open, attributed, online peer reviews, if patrolled properly, can be very liberating and eminently useful. And the historian has the ability to interact with the reviewer — a big plus for me.

Although I am clearly advocating for open scholarship online, I am most concerned with the proprietary aspects of one’s work and its overall permanence online.  Edward Ayers is correct that producing digital scholarship is a risky venture in the online world of hackers and cyber-attackers. Since I have two published books on the shelves that represent decades of research, travel, and writing (and lots of dollars tied up in those efforts), I feel less inclined to risk losing my proprietary rights to that scholarship simply to fulfill an altruistic impulse to get on board with the digital world and make everything available online. Frankly, a well-packaged, copyrighted monograph produced by an academic publishing house is akin (in my mind) to a safety deposit box for one’s scholarship. The publisher copyrights it for the author, obtains an ISBN number, catalogs it with the Library of Congress, and so on. Thus, my rights as an author and the owner of intellectual property are, at least in theory, secure — even with the one version of my book that exists digitally for Kindle users.  And a hard-copy version on the shelves further gives me that sense of permanence, a fact that Cummings and Jarrett underscore when they write that nothing is “safely online in the long-term.” Even their assurances that not much is lost, either, don’t make me feel much better.  While William Thomas sees virtue in exposing the inner workings of one’s scholarship online, I see some risk. I prefer that a strong first draft appear online for peer review after the historian has done much of his or her work offline; and, likewise, I prefer a way to upload a finished product somewhat permanently, well after the online peer reviews have helped generate a final product. If only scraps and bits of hard-won research information appear online without some safeguarding of the scholarship, then Ayers’s fears will be realized: historians won’t risk it. Thus, I think that Alex Galarza and company’s successful 2012 appeal to the American Historical Association for some guidelines regarding the value of, and attribution for, digital scholarship in the context of both the Academy and for tenure-track credit is extremely important.

But in spite of my eagerness for online peer review and digital history more broadly, I think that the book as a form through which to communicate ideas and arguments does not need to disappear into the stratosphere.  Books can simply take on new forms in a digital world that allows them to expand their impact and ability to reach — and draw in  — a much larger and interested audience. Electronic (or digital) books like those developed for Kindle readers are a good start, but the basic linear form of organizing an argument and presenting it with all its attendant evidence has no substitute — at least for the moment. I’m open to new ways of re-imagining the book in the digital world, but I think we have to use the book format as the basic building block of any attempt to present an original historical argument online. If we don’t teach new historians how to use that form now, how can they hope to make sense of the thousands of tomes that exist in the world now and upon which these very same historians will have to rely as secondary sources well into the future?

Steve Rusiecki

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