Journals in the Digital Age

“We should not be committed to the existence of institutions, but to the ends those institutions were created to enable.” -Abby Rumsey

What value do journals and books add versus digital scholarship? We invest value into these forms of scholarly presentation as though they carry value of their own. As Tom Scheinfeldt tweeted relatively recently, the book and the article are like gold and silver. They carry no intrinsic value; print text is a form we grip to out of tradition and invest our own value into.

How might we define scholarly communication?

  1. idea(s) and formulation
  2. analysis and narrative
  3. dissemination
  4. reuse and citation

What forms can and do scholarly communication take?

  1. narrative (traditionally)
  2. analysis (traditionally)
  3. data visualization (spatial, text, and so on)
  4. data (and databases)
  5. markup as interpretation (as Jerome McGann has argued elsewhere)

The web offers new forms of communication and dissemination, sometimes (often?) superior to the printed word, but we have yet to fully grasp it. Look at William and Mary Quarterly for example. They have a section on their site that contains additions for digital work (they call “Web Supplement”) that accompanies the print. Contrast this with the born-digital article by Edward Ayers and William Thomas The Difference Slavery Made based off the Valley of the Shadow digital history project. These two examples illustrate where we’ve gone in the last ten years with digital scholarship — away from long form narrative on the web, and a turn to digital work to accompany traditional print. Some journals are pioneering new forms, like the digital-only Southern Spaces, but historians need to be aggressive in getting more journals in their fields to start thinking hard about how to handle digital scholarly production.

I’m not saying I’m in agreement with Jeff Gomez who argues that print is dead (although keep in mind some of the major shifts in publishing that occurred just last year that suggest digital publication is becoming more and more a norm). But I do think there is room for digital to be the only version of a text, narrative, or analysis.

05 February 2012 · @jaheppler