[CHWP Titles]
A New Humanism? Toward a Reconsideration of the Ideals and Pragmatics Shaping Electronic Scholarly Publication in the Arts Today[1]

R.G. Siemens

University of British Columbia


CHWP B.33, publ. April 1997. © Editors of CHWP 1997. [First published in TEXT Technology, 6.3 (1996), Wright State University.]

[Abstract / Résumé]

electronic journal, scholarly publication, humanities, Arts, Early Modern Literary Studies, EMLS, idealism, pragmatics; revue électronique, publications savantes, humanités, arts, Early Modern Literary Studies, EMLS, idéalisme, pragmatisme


In a way that other papers in this volume are not, the focus of this paper is situated temporally and, to a lesser extent, geographically and personally. It is temporally fixed in that it addresses a concern at a precise moment in the development of electronic scholarly publishing in the Humanities and, more specifically, the development of the electronic journal. It is geographically located as it refers chiefly, though not exclusively, to policies and events centred in North America, with the author's chief point of reference being that of Canada. Lastly, it is situated personally in that, though it surveys some developments which have affected and will affect scholarly publishing in the electronic medium, it draws largely on what has been my own encounter with the pragmatic necessities of being an editor of an electronic journal and on experiences that others facing similar pragmatics have shared with me.

Ultimately, I seek to accentuate the value of the humanistic ideals which have spawned many electronic publications, and continue to have a strong shaping influence thereupon, and to urge -- in light of some practicalities that affect publication projects in the new medium -- that those involved in electronic scholarly publication in the Humanities consider participating in an open reconsideration of how such pragmatics already do, and will increasingly, challenge these ideals.

Notions of Humanistic Exchange

When I consider what shapes much of my understanding of publishing in the electronic medium, I am drawn to an exchange I had some two years ago with Luc Borot, an editor of Cahiers Elisabethains, on the topic of the electronic journal I was asking him to support by becoming an Advisory Editor. The electronic journal was then to be called Early Modern Studies. As a concept, it had been proposed several weeks earlier at a midsummer's evening gathering of UBC's Renaissance Discussion Group; today, the journal I edit is called Early Modern Literary Studies (EMLS), and we are currently in our second year of publication with an estimated steady "readership" of roughly 2,500 or so. Knowing Luc at that time only by reputation, and wishing very much for him to be involved with EMLS, I composed an electronic mail note: "Dear Dr. Borot," it began, "We have not met, but have been involved at least through the SHAKSPER and FICINO discussion groups [...]".[2]

As I considered the act in which I was engaged, it became quite clear in my mind that the very reason I was able to conceive of EMLS -- and the very reason that I felt it even marginally possible to contact an eminent foreign scholar, whom I had not met, in such a direct fashion without risking offense -- had to do with the medium in which I was working. Very quickly, I recognized the debt both I and my proposed journal already owed pioneers of scholarly communication in my field;[3] I also realized that the same ideals which shaped their projects shaped mine as well.

Though I had never met him, nor ever corresponded with him directly, it is true that I had "known" Luc for some time through these discussion groups to which we both belonged. We had participated in the same active academic community, exchanging ideas, asking for and offering assistance, and reading with interest the queries raised by others of our group. In fact, one of the queries that we had each read came some weeks after the EMLS idea was proposed locally, and some weeks before I had sat down to write Luc. It was a note on the SHAKSPER Electronic Conference from Bill Godshalk, entitled "The Electronic Shakespeare Journal", and read as follows:

After reading this note, I responded directly to Bill, who has been keenly involved with many aspects of EMLS since; his note is responsible, I believe, for initiating much of the support EMLS has enjoyed.

My letter to Luc, then, came at a time when a very favourable context had already been established -- flourishing internet discussion groups, a strong international academic community on-line, and, more specifically, Bill's posting and the awareness it raised -- and it was this situation that allowed me to make such direct contact. His reply came several days later; "Dear Mr. Siemens," he wrote, "I am extremely interested in the project of the electronic journal for which you solicit my collaboration. My immediate reaction is: OK!" His reply went on to discuss, knowingly, considerations which face all academic publications, but it was his final remark that initiated further exchange then and that has stayed with me quite vividly since. "My dream," he said, "is to hold a position of nothing nowhere"; noting that it is possible for one to deviate considerably from this ideal, he concluded with a reference to those whose beliefs differ: "Not a very humanistic view, theirs."[5]

I assumed then, as I assume now, that Luc saw himself holding a position where he worked towards the common scholarly good, a utopian position -- "nowhere" being the English equivalent of "utopia" in Latin -- and his words turned my own thoughts to potential models of utopian exchange: perhaps the academic, electronic equivalent of the free tobacco we find as part of the fellowship portrayed in William Morris' News From Nowhere[6] and something quite the opposite of the idealist's notion of gold, which itself we find best employed to weigh down prisoners in Thomas More's Utopia. At the risk of quoting one electronic mail correspondence too many, my further reply to him also resonated as I thought about my topic: "Your view of nothing nowhere," I wrote, "is ideally humanist...".[7]

With such enthusiasm did EMLS begin and, at a time when comparisons of the impending electronic publishing revolution to the time of the printer Gutenberg or the humanists Erasmus and More seemed less worn than they do today, EMLS moved towards its first issue with the idealism that was closely associated with the medium. There was, truly, immense idealism about. Stevan Harnad, editor of the electronic journal PSYCOLOQUY, had made his subversive proposal, that instead of sending articles and book manuscripts to traditional academic journals and publishers, scholars should distribute their work free via the internet through electronic journals and scholar-managed archives. This idea and others akin to it were gaining much attention,[8] enough so to warrant the American-based Association of Research Libraries (ARL) to publish, last summer, the book Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads: A Subversive Proposal for Electronic Publishing (O'Donnell & Okerson 1995). One might say, in fact, that the debate surrounding scholarly publishing in the electronic medium had seen a fundamental shift in focus. It became, on the whole, a debate no longer concerned with questioning if such publication will, can, or should exist,[9] nor did it look far into the future for such publications to arrive; rather, debate was beginning to concern itself increasingly with issues that took for granted both the existence and the positive role of electronic journals in the scholarly community.[10] Electronic scholarly publication, specifically that of journals, had itself received some degree of acceptance,[11] and the questions at hand had become more focussed on how and when[12] such publication would move forward, and what exactly was needed to publish academic work in the electronic medium.[13]

Some months before publishing Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads, the ARL published a document entitled "University Support for Electronic Publishing" (J. O'Donnell 1994) which addressed these concerns. At the centre of this document was a series of policy proposals to assist academics, academic institutions, and publishers of academic materials to publish in electronic form. It urged a three-pronged approach for universities to support electronic publishing, which included (1) encouraging the creation of support centres for faculty electronic publication, (2) establishing servers on campuses to distribute pre-print versions of works intended for the press, and (3) establishing peer reviewed electronic journals through the cooperative efforts of academic entities. The related Canadian group, CARL, urged the same, more specifically suggesting federal government initiatives:

Following from these suggestions, in part, we have witnessed the inclusion of journals which publish electronically in several programs which fund scholarly publication.

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[1] A version of this paper was previously presented as "A New Humanism? Idealism, Pragmatism, and Scholarly Publication in the Electronic Medium" ("Scholarly Publication in the New Medium: Online Journals and Series," a panel at the joint session of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English and the Consortium for Computing in the Humanities at the 1996 Learned Societies Conferences, Brock University, 24 May 1996) and also draws upon material from another presentation, "Theory and Practice, Perception and Validation: A Rationale for Literary Journals in the New Medium" ("The Electronic Word", a panel at the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English at the 1995 Learned Societies Conferences, University of Quebec at Montreal, 30 May 1995).

[2] Electronic mail message to Luc Borot, 27 September 1994.

[3] Specifically, a great debt is owed to people such as Kenneth Steele, original editor of SHAKSPER, Germaine Warkentin of FICINO, Willard McCarty, editor of HUMANIST and of great assistance to SHAKSPER and FICINO both, as well as many others who have been involved in these projects and beyond.

[4] Electronic mail message from Bill Godshalk, posted to the SHAKSPER Electronic Conference, 24 July 1994 (SHK 5.0636). James Zeiger, editor of the electronic journal Theatre.Perspectives.International, responded immediately: "W.L. Godshalk brings up an interesting point. SHAKSPER, as one of the most active lists on the Internet, certainly comes close to qualifying as a complete journal. Undoubtedly, a very respectable journal could be fashioned from its contents" (SHAKSPER Electronic Conference, 25 July 1994 [SHK 5.0637]).

[5] Electronic mail message from Luc Borot, 29 September 1994.

[6] Morris, of course, was writing long before our societal wisdom had benefitted from our Surgeon General's recommendations.

[7] Electronic mail message to Luc Borot, 29 September 1994.

[8] See the several of Harnad's works listed in the bibliography, especially "The PostGutenberg Galaxy", as well as the reply to that piece by Fuller, and also by Brent.

[9] This environment spawned pieces over a decade ago such as John Senders' provocatively-titled "I Have Seen the Future, and it Doesn't Work".

[10] Michael O'Donnell's recent paper is, perhaps, exemplary of this shift. He states: "It is impossible to predict the form and the speed with which electronic textual media will take over various roles from printing. But, extrapolating from the success of journals that are currently published electronically, it is clear that electronic media will capture a large share of scholarly publication in the next five years, and that printed media will not be competitive in journal publication beyond a few more decades [...]. In the face of this conversion of scholarly journals from printing to electronic communication, we need to analyse the act of scholarly publication, and to separate its intellectual essence from the accidents imposed by printing." (M. O'Donnell 1995: 183-4).

[11] While many still questioned the value of electronic publication, it was clear that general economic realities of higher education -- realities from which few disciplines were immune -- would be a driving force behind the movement towards scholarly communication of this nature. The examples most often raised were the rising cost of print publication, the concurrently shrinking purchasing budgets of most libraries, and the economic savings which were then being promised by electronic publication methods. See Hofman 1995, the special "Internet Economics" issue of the Journal of Electronic Publishing, Jog 1995, and the Proceedings of the 1993 International Conference on Refereed Electronic Journals.

[12] Arguments which engaged, positively, the pragmatic concerns surrounding working with publications -- specifically journals -- in electronic form saw a similar level of acceptance. Often cited as reasons why electronic journals were not suitable for use in the Arts were studies such as that reported by Olsen (Olsen 1993), which found that the chief concern among academics using electronic journals was the difficulty related to working with electronic materials themselves. Some of the problems noted in this study were eye-strain from excessive time spent in front of a computer screen, the inability to annotate pieces read on the computer, the absence of protocols for the citation of articles from electronic journals, and the fact that the location of archives which housed them was unstable. These were serious problems, indeed, but they were beginning to be seen as ones which could be addressed. For example, the quality of computer monitors was constantly improving and, for those who did not wish to read on the computer, electronic journal publishers offered versions of their journals that could be easily downloaded and printed onto paper with the help of a word processor, or via internet browser software; once the article was on paper, the screen no longer posed a problem, and readers could annotate, browse, and skim as they would, say, with an article photocopied from a paper journal for such purposes.

[13] Some groups had seen the necessity of dealing with more specialized problems -- such as those of publishing, distributing, archiving, accessing, citation, and so forth -- in more detail. For example, the problems associated with citing work found in electronic journals, as with that of electronic materials in general, were being investigated by those responsible for compiling related sections of the fourth edition of the MLA Handbook, published and distributed in early 1995, which provides sensible guidelines (see section 4.9.3); more recently, problems associated with managing, archiving, and providing stable access to electronic journals have been taken on by groups such as the National Library of Canada, which has launched an experimental program called the Electronic Publications Pilot Project to acquire, store, preserve, catalogue, and distribute a small number of existing Canadian electronic journals. Individuals associated with current electronic publishing initiatives -- which, in addition to those already mentioned, should also include Postmodern Culture and the test volumes of such journals as English Literary History, Configurations, and Modern Language Notes published by the Johns Hopkins University Press under the auspices of Project MUSE -- and with centres such as Toronto's Centre for Computing in the Humanities, Virginia's Institute for the Advancement of Technology in the Humanities, and others had much to do with this advancement.