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News from the open access movement

Friday, July 13, 2007

Resistance to digital scholarship undermines academic excellence

Stephen Nichols, Digital Scholarship: What's All the Fuss? CLIR Issues, July/August, 2007. Excerpt:

...Academia's allegiance to analog scholarship is especially pernicious for younger scholars who would like to explore the horizons of digital scholarship but are warned that their academic future lies with traditional print scholarship. The rule might as well be cast in stone: you must have several articles published in reputable, refereed [print] journals to be hired. To have your contract renewed, you must have published still more articles and have a book manuscript nearly ready for submission. For tenure at the associate professor level, you need a published book, or at least a contract for a manuscript. Finally, for promotion to full professor, two or more books are required.

This formula has changed little for the past century. Now, however, it threatens to undermine the very concept of academic excellence it was designed to preserve. Those who adamantly insist on it fail to recognize that the Web and Internet have placed us in the midst of a revolution that has the potential for transforming how we think about, and access, our objects of study....

Take as an example my own discipline, medieval literature. Medievalists have always studied literary works in critical editions -modern editions of a work edited by a scholar other than the original author- even though the works were originally transmitted by manuscripts that gave different (sometimes quite different) versions of the work. Since the manuscripts are preserved in geographically remote repositories, it was not possible to consult different manuscript versions of a work side by side. This meant that the edited text was used for research, even though it was modern rather than medieval in origin.

With the possibility of having digital libraries of medieval manuscripts online, everything changes. Now, for the first time, scholars can study authentically medieval versions of texts side by side....

We need to come to grips with the consequences of our having at our fingertips scores of manuscripts for study and comparison. Access to this material will change long-held assumptions [based on smaller samples]....