Friday, September 09, 2011

Hacking the Academy: Transformative? Feasible?

The shorter version of the free, crowdsourced book Hacking the Academy is now online (via Profhacker) at this site: http://www.digitalculture.org/hacking-the-academy/. I've been reading through the "Hacking Scholarship" part.

The whole essay or series of essays, if it's not too old-school a term to refer to them that way, is exciting; you can feel the energy that went into this project. It's also exciting to see put together in one place ideas that have been out on the blogosphere for some time. Here are some excerpts, with comments and questions:
  • "Say no, when asked to undertake peer-review work on a book or article manuscript that has been submitted for publication by a for-profit publisher or a journal under the control of a commercial publisher." (Jason Baird Jackson)
Cathy Davidson and other eminences may be able to get away with this, but if your university, like most, counts productivity in ways that engage with traditional publishing, this Bartleby "I would prefer not to" idea may not work.
  • "The idea that knowledge is a product, which can be delivered in an analog vehicle needs to be questioned. What the network shows us, is that many of our views of information were/are based on librocentric biases." (David Parry)
True, and again, something that's exciting and potentially liberating, although I confess to being librocentric (a librophiliac?). I don't know about this "knowledge as product in an analog vehicle," though. Haven't we been talking about alternative ways to exchange/preserve/present knowledge for at least the last 20 years or roughly the Internet age? That's how long I've heard about it, at any rate.
  • "In a world where the primary tools for finding new scholarship are tagged, social databases like Delicious and LibraryThing, the most efficient form of journal interface with the world might be a for journals to scrap their websites and become collective, tagging entities." (Jo Guldi) Guldi goes on to suggest a "wikification" that would allow a journal article to be crowdsource-reviewed for a year and to disappear if the author didn't make it a stronger article as a result.
Again, another interesting idea. Here the "survival of the fittest" ethos usually considered to be the province of official peer reviewers is crowdsourced--still Darwinian, in that a few will survive but many perish, but more democratic, maybe. Someone else suggested that reviews will still be "invited," so there will still be a hierarchy.

Meanwhile, the article dangles in the wind for a year, and if it is deemed insufficiently improved (by whom?) it disappears and the now publicly humiliated author . . . does what? Takes it off his or her cv, if it was on there to begin with? At what point does it count as "published," if we will still even have that category of evaluation?
  • "But the key point is that we need to take back our publications from the market-based economy, and to reorient scholarly communication within the gift economy that best enables our work to thrive. We are, after all, already doing the labor for free—the labor of research, the labor of writing, the labor of editing—as a means of contributing to the advancement of the collective knowledge in our fields." (Kathleen Fitzpatrick)
Can I get a big "amen"?
  • "But, as Cathy Davidson has noted, 'the database is not the scholarship. The book or the article that results from it is the scholarship.'” (Mills Kelly)
True--and yet what about the work that goes into establishing, curating, and mounting a database for use, not to mention the technical details? Kelly says, rightly, that it's not considered scholarship if it doesn't make an argument. Isn't the selection of texts and choice of access media a form of argument or at least an intellectual labor?

More to the point: Kelly never says this and never puts it in this way, but I'm uncomfortable with what could be seen as a distinction between worker bees who create the database and the "real scholars" who use it. Don't we value editions? Why should a database be less valued? Tom Scheinfeldt provides an answer for this:
  • At the very least, we need to make room for both kinds of digital humanities, the kind that seeks to make arguments and answer questions now and the kind that builds tools and resources with questions in mind, but only in the back of its mind and only for later.


  • Anyway, even if you don't agree with all of it, it's an exciting way to think about the possibilities of scholarship, so go read it.

    Your thoughts?

    5 comments:

    Ink said...

    Yes, a big amen. Thank goodness someone realizes the FREE nature of so much of our labor. It's disheartening sometimes.

    Jonathan Jarrett said...

    "But, as Cathy Davidson has noted, 'the database is not the scholarship. The book or the article that results from it is the scholarship.'” (Mills Kelly)

    I'm right with you and beyond on this one, this is a real nerve to touch. I speak not for myself (because none of the databases I've actually built, rather than just maintained, have served a wider public than me or my boss) but for, when I have to pick an example, the guy who built two databases I did maintain later, the Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which records every coin datable between 380-1150 reported found in the British Isles ever and also every coin of manufacture from that period of British history now in a museum collection (though that work is still ongoing). He built it in 1998, learning the code as he went, and it has needed almost no tweaking since then and still works. Its mapping function now looks elderly but you know, it is. Then the other one was putting online and searchable the text of every surviving Anglo-Saxon charter. This has now been replaced by an 'upgraded' version (meaning, much more sophisticated than its webserver can actually serve) but the old one survived for a decade, with him making occasional fixes to it gratis, because so many people needed it.

    These are arguably two of the main scholarly resources in Anglo-Saxon studies anyone has ever constructed, they have helped thousands of people in their researches, professional and amateur, and the man could not get an academic job because databases don't count as scholarship. He did have a book as well, but that was 'only' an edition, which is also not, you know, 'original' scholarship. And that's how we repay actual labour, apparently.

    As you can tell, I haven't entirely escaped my fear of finishing up in the same trap here, hence my odium. But it isn't fair or correct.

    undine said...

    Ink--the "free" nature of it is especially galling when you realize that for the general public, it's not worth doing at all.

    Jonathan--This story really hits home, and I'm glad you told it. It ought to get more prominence, frankly. So a scholar builds these databases, without which others cannot do their scholarship, and it's not counted as scholarship? Disgraceful.

    Jason Baird Jackson said...

    If doing peer-review is key to one's performance evaluations and if the publishing landscape of a field is already 100% under control of the large commercial publishers, then perhaps an employed scholar would have little choice but to participate. But, in most fields, established scholars are asked to do peer-review much more often than is humanly possible given other commitments (AND the actual limits of their knowledge). And, there are not-for-profit journals and university presses (etc.) who are among those seeking peer-review assistance. This is the context in which I propose that scholars choose to give their time to (equally good) publishers in the public interest rather than giving free labor to large corporations.

    undine said...

    Jason, thanks for stopping by and responding. I think that as more awareness spreads about this possibility, academics will choose to support the not-for-profit venues in reviewing, but it would be the rare person who could afford to turn other kinds of reviewing down entirely. If you are counting university presses and scholarly journals published by universities, then a lot of us do this kind of reviewing already. Are you talking about the big for-profit publishers like Elsevier?