'Scholarship in the Digital Age'

It's hard to meet academics these days whose work hasn't been changed by the Internet. But even if everyone knows that the world of scholarship has changed, it's not always clear just how or the way those evolutions fit into the broad history of scholarship. Christine L. Borgman sets out to do just that in Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure and the Internet, just published by MIT Press.

November 14, 2007

It's hard to meet academics these days whose work hasn't been changed by the Internet. But even if everyone knows that the world of scholarship has changed, it's not always clear just how or the way those evolutions fit into the broad history of scholarship. Christine L. Borgman sets out to do just that in Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure and the Internet, just published by MIT Press. Borgman, a presidential chair in information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, responded to e-mail questions about her book.

Q: In terms of the creation of scholarship, how do you view the significance of the changes brought by the digital age -- in contrast to changes brought by earlier revolutionary changes (atomic age, age of mass non-digital communication, etc.)?

A: While it is difficult to compare “revolutionary” changes across environments, I do think that we are the midst of profound shifts in the scholarly environment. Most new publications are distributed in digital form and vast portions of the print archive are being digitized. Scholars (at least in the developed world) have ubiquitous high-bandwidth connectivity to the Internet, online access to digital content in their fields (both free and by university-paid licenses), and the tools and services to make use of these resources. Taken together, this environment offers a wealth of opportunities for new kinds of data-and information-intensive, distributed, collaborative, interdisciplinary scholarship.

However, the availability of this environment does not lead directly to changes in scholarly practice. The scholarly communication system has evolved over a period of centuries -- it doesn’t shift quickly. Scholarly journals still look a lot like they did in the 17th century, for example. The tenure system is a much stronger driver of scholarly infrastructure than is technology. Scholars are rewarded for publishing journal articles and books, in the right places. They are not rewarded for good data management, except in a very few fields. Rewards for open access publishing are indirect, such as more citations, and recognition of these benefits has been slow to emerge.

Q: Do you think scholars have too much information now, such that "sifting time" takes too much time away from the actual production of knowledge?

A: Scholars have been complaining about too many books and journals since Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) day! The sifting problem, per se, is not new. What is new is the declining availability of indicators to determine what’s real, what’s true, what’s valuable, and what will still be there the next time we look. Scholars still can rely on the selection of works by research libraries, by publication in recognized journal, book, and conference series, and by known authors, where those indicators exist. But much important content falls outside this realm, and its value is much harder to assess.

More information is not necessarily better information, of course. The more content that is digitized, the easier it is to get lost in cyberspace. Digital documents are malleable, mutable, and mobile, which is both their strength and their weakness. They can exist online in many versions, both enhancing and confusing the scholarly record.

Q: Has the digital age resulted in professors having less ownership of their intellectual property than they had before?

A: Yes, although “control” is more the issue than is “ownership.” The set of rights associated with copyright ownership is even greater for digital than for printed works. If authors sign over all associated rights to a publisher, they indeed have even less ownership than before. Many universities and funding agencies are encouraging (or increasingly, requiring) authors to hold back certain rights from the publisher, such as the rights to self-archive on Web sites or in repositories, to use the work in their teaching, or to make their own derivative works. A growing number of authors are using Creative Commons licenses to distribute their work, which reserves rights such as attribution to the author and places limits on reuse for commercial purposes.

The other side of the coin is that the extension of copyright term (70 years after the death of the author, and longer in the case of commercial works) means scholars have greater difficulty obtaining access to recent materials. The problem is especially acute in the humanities, where scholars need to incorporate images or sounds in their scholarly products.

Now that the Internet makes wider dissemination possible, copyright laws and contracts are restricting dissemination. The “open access” movement is a response to these limits on access to scholarly works. Funding agencies in Europe, and increasingly in the U.S., are encouraging or requiring grantees to make their publications, and sometimes their data, available within a specified period (usually 6 to 12 months) by submitting them to an open access repository. These policies do not restrict where researchers can publish; they just require that the publications also be deposited. At this writing, bills have passed both the House and Senate to require publications resulting from NIH-funded research to be deposited in PubMed Central within 12 months after publication.

Q: As you look at different disciplines and the way they have used digital technologies, do some strike you as more sophisticated than others? Which ones?

A: Examples of sophisticated uses of digital technologies can be found in almost every discipline and field. In the sciences, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey “is the most ambitious astronomical survey ever undertaken." It is an international effort to map portions of the sky, releasing the data to the scientific and general public. Not only has it resulted in hundreds of scholarly papers, the SDSS is widely used by amateur astronomers, teachers, and learners around the world. Social scientists long have relied on repositories of social surveys, census records, geographic information, and other resources for longitudinal and comparative research. With new tools, they can enhance and extend these studies with rich visualizations of social relationships. Humanities scholars have reconstructed lives during the U.S. Civil War in the Valley of the Shadow and public places in the Rome Reborn project (UCLA and University of Virginia). Artifacts from the earliest forms of writing and printing, long scattered around the globe, are brought together digitally through the Dunhuang Project – which includes more than 130,000 manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artifacts from Dunhuang and other Silk Road sites – and the Cuneiform Digital Library, which has cataloged more than 200,000 cuneiform tablets dating from the beginning of writing, ca. 3350 BC to the end of the pre-Christian era.

Digital scholarship is most deeply embedded in the sciences, which are more oriented toward distributed and collaborative work, the use of shared instrumentation, and the production of large datasets. Fields are adopting and adapting digital technologies in different ways and at different rates, due to variances in scholarly practices and in the availability of resources.

Q: What do you see as the key unexplored policy issues raised by digital scholarship?

A: The overarching policy issue is what the new scholarly information infrastructure should be. Cyberinfrastructure is the policy answer of the moment. My concern is whether this is a solution in search of a problem that we don’t yet fully understand. Building something is much easier than is determining what to build – the risk today is that we construct a new infrastructure that locks in a number of questionable assumptions about what scholarship is and what it could be in the future.

Some aspects of a successful new scholarly infrastructure are these:

  • It would support both collaborative and independent research and learning.
  • It would provide relatively easy and equitable access to information resources and to the tools to use them.
  • It would provide scholars in all fields with the ability to use their own research data and that of others to ask new questions and to visualize and model their data in new ways. For example:
    • Scientists – better models of the environment.
    • Social scientists – better ways to analyze social trends.
    • Humanists – new ways to explore and explain culture – and to mine all those books being digitized by Google, Open Content Alliance, and other international projects
  • Open access would prevail, and access to digital content would be permanent.
  • Institutional responsibility for obtaining and maintaining digital content would be clear and would be sustainable.

We haven’t achieved any of these goals yet. Each of the many stakeholders – scholars, students, universities, publishers, librarians, archivists, funding agencies, and the taxpaying public – has different concerns for how these functions should be addressed. What we need is a broader conversation that includes these many interested parties.

Q: What are your favorite digital tools for your own scholarship?

A: I use a wide array of digital tools, none of which are fully satisfactory. These include software for writing, citing, sharing resources with collaborators, and analyzing data, both quantitative and qualitative. In addition to campus resources, I have three computers at home with the requisite wireless connections to printers and other devices. My “on the road” bag of technology (laptop, camera, ipod, headphones, and associated cables and batteries) is on wheels because it’s too heavy to lift. Today’s software for writing and citing remains optimized for the lone scholar. Robust tools for collaborative writing and for sharing of data and documents are remarkably lacking. We are building and studying tools for the collaborative production and use of scientific data, which is providing some insights into the larger questions of how better to support scholarly practices with cyberinfrastructure. Much more needs to be understood about the practices of today if we are to design the scholarly information infrastructure of tomorrow.


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