CHWP B.33 Siemens, "A New Humanism? Toward a Reconsideration of the Ideals and Pragmatics Shaping Electronic Scholarly Publication in the Arts Today"

Idealism and Realism

Today, of course, there is still much idealism about, and still much about which to be optimistic. Most notably, there is an ever-increasing academic community participating in computer-mediated communicative forums (specialized discussion groups and electronic conferences) and a growing number of electronic publications (from the World Wide Web "pages" of individuals that present research and gather links to related select resources, to refereed journals, monograph postprints, and beyond) that are motivated by a strong, shared humanistic spirit. It was this same spirit -- the humanistic ideal of holding positions of nothing nowhere in order to facilitate the free exchange of ideas and information -- that led EMLS into its first year of publication. Not unrelated, what allowed that spirit to see fruition in ours and other such projects was the medium itself and, importantly, the nature of scholarly exchange facilitated by the medium.

The idea of a medium facilitating and shaping certain types of communication is nothing new, nor is the concept of ideals or concerns motivating an individual or group of individuals into action -- the former is a McLuhanist commonplace, and the latter is what drives ordinary and extraordinary events in our individual and collective lives -- nor, one might argue, is the electronic communicative medium (in this case, the internet) new; what is new, however, is the change the medium has undergone in the past two years, especially as a result of its increasing profile in communities which have typically ignored its potential as an aid to communication. With this increased profile has come initiatives such as those, aforementioned, which were sponsored by professional groups and recognized individuals. Exposure, however, is not something which is always embraced heartily; with these initiatives and the awareness they have raised -- both positive and welcome in themselves -- have come also some larger pragmatic constraints which, at times, put into question one's ability to operate within parameters suggested by the humanistic ideals that have spawned such publication.

In light of what appears to be general enthusiasm for electronic publication today, we might ask, as I have been forced to ask myself over the past year or so, if there is any cause for concern. With the increased awareness of the medium's potential, are conditions not ideal? Is not Harnad's subversive proposal well-accepted? Are not professional bodies strongly supportive of electronic publications, specifically journals? Are not funding agencies guiding scholars along these lines, by changing their support and funding structures to encourage such development? More locally, do not our administrative superiors -- advisors, chairs, and deans, for example -- and our peers recognize the contribution all meritorious academic work makes, regardless of the medium in which it is published?

In many cases, the answer is yes. In some cases, however, the answer to these questions has appeared to be yes only on the surface; but, if we were to peer just slightly below the surface and beyond the facade of the rhetoric which has recently arisen around the topic of electronic publishing, this answer might be less positive. Such an answer, however, would have to be given after careful consideration and (in my case) after over a year of working with what one might call the non-physical materials[14] necessary for the construction of an electronic scholarly publication: the actual views held by those (individuals, groups, and organizations) who are coming with great speed to the medium, as well as the pragmatic manifestations of the statements and policies of a number of highly-relevant individuals and organizations, locally, nationally, and internationally.

Harnad's subversive proposal -- the potentially revolutionary argument that academics simply undermine traditional academic and, importantly, economic structures of publishing -- has truly met with much acceptance, but also much disagreement, not only from academics but members of the publishing community as well. Moreover, though large organizational bodies such as the Modern Language Association do support work in the electronic medium and urge that scholarly work, regardless of medium, be given equal consideration by hiring and promotion committees, in reality this seems not to be the case;[15] this prompts a question: what is the future of electronic publication if those who are concerned with being hired or promoted (in essence, the majority of all academics) are discouraged from publishing in the electronic medium? The ARL and CARL, moreover, are truly supportive of electronic publications, as their policies and initiatives show, and they are influential bodies, but we must ask if the forward-looking policies they foster -- policies which are currently being embraced in part and, perhaps, in whole by many other groups, including agencies responsible for funding research and its dissemination -- are being implemented in actuality, or rhetorically;[16] we must also examine the manifestations of those policies' implementations.[17] This raises other questions. Is there a future for electronic publishing if potentially helpful organizations are, unknowingly, damaging? Can such publication survive in a scholarly environment where only lip-service is paid to its actual support?

The answers to the questions I have posed above, I believe, are negative. There is no future for electronic scholarly publication in an environment where those who are concerned with being hired or promoted are effectively discouraged from publishing in the electronic medium, when potentially helpful organizations are in actuality damaging, and where only lip-service is paid to its actual support. That said, I also think that there is a future for electronic scholarly publication, and herein lies some discrepancy. The questions I have posed, above -- ones which I have discussed with colleagues worldwide -- do not, I believe, allow us best to discuss the current situation of scholarly electronic publishing. It is not that these questions are not pertinent; far from it, in fact. However, they each share a common quality which makes the immediate pursuit of their answers less effective than otherwise. That quality is this: they do not show an explicit awareness of the larger situation that has brought them into being.

At the risk of appearing to be the computing equivalent of xenophobic, but with no such intention, I suggest that the largest changes to the electronic scholarly community of late have come with the involvement of communities that have traditionally ignored its communicative potential. The question, then, that we might best ask focusses on the involvement of these new communities: does not the expansion of the academic internet community -- specifically, an expansion which includes many who bring standard notions of academic publishing in non-electronic media -- inculcate in that newly-arrived group the same humanistic ideals shared by the extant electronic publishing community? I suggest that the answer to this question is no.

What typically happens when a group expands is a process of concurrent assimilation and integration: assimilation of the new individuals into the larger group, and integration (peaceful or otherwise) of originally unshared aspects of the new individuals; sometimes, assimilation and integration are acts containing an equivalence of influence. One clear example of such a process occurring on the internet involves the larger business community, which had some years ago begun to embrace the potential of the medium as a cost-effective means of distributing information and enlarging customer base. What the business community, in turn, brought to the extant but growing internet community was the discourse of business, which at times was (and still is) quite at odds with that of internet-traditionalists but which nonetheless has permanently changed the nature of the internet.

Considering the topic at hand, we can profitably apply the same model of interaction to the growing community involved in electronic scholarly publishing (an act which, in its current form, is chiefly internet based). Traditionally, one might say, interaction on the internet among scholars in the Arts has been shaped to a large degree by humanistic ideals which tend towards those of the internet-traditionalists. But proposals such as that of Harnad and policies such as those proposed by the ARL and CARL which embrace the spirit of those ideals also, conversely, place those ideals at risk -- through no fault of their own. Such policies and proposals, humanistic in themselves, attract the interests of the larger academic publishing community and, in bringing such interests to the extant electronic scholarly publishing community, there is a danger that the act of integration could be more influential than that of assimilation; that is, there is a danger that the discourse of the larger academic publishing community will be brought to bear on, and will be ultimately more influential than, that already thriving in electronic publishing circles. Just as the business community embraced the internet some years ago as a cost-effective means of distributing information, so too, it seems, is the publishing community as a whole. With such an embrace, electronic scholarly publication does have a future -- not that it wouldn't have one otherwise -- and a future in which some of the current problems facing those publishing and getting published in the electronic medium will be resolved; that said, its future may not be that which its foundation in humanistic ideals might suggest.

Whose Road is Crossing Whose? A Proposal

Academic publication as a whole does, as the title of the recent ARL publication suggests, currently find itself at a type of crossroads. But for those who have been involved or interested in electronic scholarly publication for some time, it seems less a crossroads at which the paper and electronic media meet than one at which traditional humanistic ideals intersect with the discourse of the larger, traditionally print-based academic publishing machine. It is at this intersection that electronic publications such as journals, which have been able to exist at the fringe of the scholarly publishing world, are artificially drawn into the centre because of the newly-perceived benefits of the communicative medium they employ; that, after years of speaking for themselves, they suddenly find other groups (institutional, professional, and so forth,[18] each with varying degrees of understanding of the necessary issues, medium-specific and otherwise) speaking for them; that, after years of having existed without consideration of their monetary value (nor any apparent need for such an assessment), they are now frequently being considered in terms of cost recovery by institutions and of profit by academic publishers, and quite strongly pushed in those directions at times; that instead of being self-legitimized through active participation and peer-review processes, there is a growing expectation that they must be legitimized not only by economic self-sufficiency (something which is expected of a limited number of print-based academic publications) but also by organizations which, until recently, were foreigners to anything but print-based media.[19]

As dire as it may seem to some, this situation is, in essence, a very positive one, in that it has been brought about by an external, widespread, rapid, and ultimately positive recognition of the benefits of publishing in the electronic medium; this speaks quite favourably to those who have been at work in the medium for some time. That said, this situation also requires exploration much beyond that which I briefly present here, but not necessarily by the groups which are speaking most these days about electronic scholarly publishing. Rather, I wish to urge a reconsideration of this situation by those who have been involved in publishing in the electronic medium for some time, with an eye toward preserving the humanistic ideals that spawned many of the ventures that are now held as exemplary models. As well, I wish to suggest that the beginning framework of an organization be established -- be it a new electronic discussion group, or a special forum within an appropriately-focussed existing organization -- one which could assist in such a reconsideration, one which could in such a capacity act as a foundation and grounding-point for those publishing in the electronic medium, and one which (and I say this with some recognition of its irony) could ultimately, perhaps, serve the growing number of electronic scholarly publication projects in what are necessary infrastructure-related support roles akin to that traditionally provided by a print publisher.

By suggesting such a reconsideration (a reconsideration, in fact, which I urge even before many would believe that consideration has itself fully taken place) and the establishment of such an organization (in an environment where there are considerable organizations assisting and governing scholarly publication) I hope that, in light of the new discourses which are coming to bear upon scholarly electronic publishing, the discourse that contains the humanistic ideals that spawned EMLS of which Luc and I spoke several years ago -- and about which I have spoken with many people before and since -- can be as much of an influential factor in the future as it has been in the past.

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[14] I am referring less to the issues of technology and technological application which are so essential to electronic publication and more to the nebulous issues surrounding publication in the new medium.

[15] At EMLS, for example, we have received several inquiries concerned with this very issue; to paraphrase a note which is best left unattributed, I recently read something like this: "My department head does not believe that an article published in an electronic journal deserves the same status as one published elsewhere." While there are policies to work against the manifestations of such opinions, and excellent examples of scholarly electronic publication -- electronic journals, for example, that publish materials that have been refereed by editorial boards with at least the same pluck as many non-electronic publications --, we must take a comment such as the one I have just paraphrased quite seriously.

[16] While the proclamations urging support for electronic publication ventures may have seen fruition, in an idealistic sense, in the policies of several funding programs, they may not have seen fruition at the level of these programs' pragmatic operations. For example, one particular funding program that traditionally assisted print journals was recently opened, with some fanfare and resultant clamour, to include electronic journals as well; its precise policies, however, revealed a clear prejudice against journals which published in electronic form. The issue, in this case, was one of subscription; a certain level of a specific type of subscription was necessary for consideration by the funding agency. Any state of the art electronic journal would now, as several years ago, count user-initiated access over the internet (by FTP, GOPHER, and WWW) as evidence of readership -- many e-journals did not in the past, and do not today, distribute in any other way -- yet this program refused to accept such distribution and, therefore, electronic journals which had a readership that accessed them in this way (the best way, today, for electronic journals to be accessed) were disqualified.

Such a refusal reflects an actual spirit quite contrary to that which had been stated; that said, counting readership for a journal or scholarly publication in any medium is a tricky business, especially when one considers the dramatic changes in recent history of readership patterns among academics.

Thinking specifically of the Humanities, here I refer to the nature of, firstly, what it means to be a journal (in any medium) and, secondly, to what it means to be part of a journal's readership or audience -- to read and use a journal. Both have seen considerable change in recent years, moving from what one might call traditional patterns for Humanities' periodicals to those akin to fields sharing very little with the Humanities. Last year, Marilyn Gaull, the founding editor of the Wordsworth Circle, among several concerns addressed one aspect of this situation in a letter to the editor of PMLA:

Her position, developed further in her letter, exemplifies a common reaction to recent trends in journal use. At the root of similar reactions is a questioning of the scholarly reward system that has not only spawned what has been described as an explosion of serial-based literature in the Humanities, but that has also led to the unmanageability (at least by traditional means) of some areas of scholarship. It has been felt that the journal, in its earlier inception, was beginning to lose aspects of its accepted function because of a reward system based chiefly upon quantitative production and an academic mindset that saw scholarly publication as a means of promotion, perhaps, moreso than as an act of academic communication.

Moreover, the proliferation of journal literature has made it increasingly difficult for scholars to participate in the communities that journals have traditionally created out of their audience (electronic mail discussion groups seem to serve this purpose more and more). It is much less possible today, for example, for scholars to read a single journal in its entirety as part of that journal's dedicated community; rather, it is more typical that scholars have to keep watch on an ever-growing number of journals, and read them more for single articles of relevance to a particular interest or sole research question rather than to obtain a larger reflection of research within their field. In short, it is becoming recognized that a Humanities scholar's use of periodical literature is beginning to approach that of those in the more scientific disciplines. Further, those in the more scientific disciplines are beginning to realize that their own usage patterns for periodical literature have become a strong argument for the electronic management of periodical resources and, in turn, for electronic journals themselves.

[17] As an example of a manifestation requiring examination, I would like to briefly turn to an initiative spawned by such helpful policies. In a meritorious and well-intentioned campaign aimed at raising awareness among scholars about electronic publishing, a document mailed last summer to many journal editors did more to feed the anxiety and paranoia which exist in some circles about electronic publication than to attract positive interest from those groups. The identifying graphic at the top of this document consisted of a computer displaying the word "On", then the word "or" against a plain backdrop, and lastly a puff of smoke containing a dollar sign with the word "gone" written overtop -- representing the slogan "On or [money] Gone!" Sadly, by accentuating so prominently the very negatively-perceived issue of funding which was forcing many journals to consider giving up paper publication, rather than pointing out the many accepted and positive benefits of electronic publishing, this campaign did much to set back popular opinion towards electronic scholarly publishing in a circle key for its acceptance.

In short, this document contributed to an us versus them view of scholarly publication already extant in some sectors.

[18] To these groups, I should also consciously add myself.

[19] Consider also their legitimation by being included in the rhetoric of funding programs aimed at all scholarly communication in all media and at the same time, because they fail to meet certain criteria adapted from the medium of print, their exclusion and consequent marginalization (see note 16).