With the 2nd Pue’s Occurrences symposium only a week away, I’ve been thinking a lot about the theme we’ve chosen to focus on: ‘Web Legitimacy’. This was an issue that popped up again and again at our first symposium last year and one that we, like many of last year’s participants, felt important enough to concentrate on this year. We’ll be focusing on issues of legitimacy particular to blogging – whether academic or not – but much of what we’ll be discussing also pertains to other web-based publications and, indeed, Digital Humanities as a whole. Several participants in last year’s symposium voiced the concern that online publishing – specifically that without a corresponding print publication – simply isn’t weighted as heavily as more traditional print formats. I know myself that in constructing my CV, there’s a certain hierarchy of publications to be followed in order suitably to impress the reader. Online publications always go last, irrespective of my perception of their ‘worth’ or ‘value’.
This hierarchical attitude towards online publications in the academic community has been reified in recent years by various large scale research assessment programs, chief among them, the RAE and now, the REF. While attempting scientifically to categorize and quantify the research outputs of both individuals and the schools/departments/universities to which they contribute, such exercises suggest that digital outputs – be they in the form of a blog, contributions to a web-based academic journal or encyclopedia, or myriad other such outputs – are a negligible, at the very least, less worthy, asset of academic life in comparison to traditional, printed monographs, journal articles, and editions. Ironically, however, in sciences and maths, the monograph – the seeming end all and be all for academics in the humanities – is relegated to a lowly position, while digital outputs receive a far higher ranking, a situation that highlights the inconsistencies inherent to the weighting of outputs across the disciplines.
As I got worked up about the unfairness of it all, I was fortuitously directed (by one of this year’s speakers – Orla Murphy) to the blog of Professor Laura Mandall, director of the Digital Humanities Program at the Armstrong Institute of Interactive Media Studies at Miami University. In a post titled ‘What the Digital Humanities (is)n’t: Free’ (5 January 2011), Mandall considers the costs of Digital Humanities, countering the ‘unrealistic expectation’ or understanding that Digital Humanities represents a cash cow of sorts that only needs to be milked to provide this (and/or the next) generation of academics with enough funding to set them up for life. More pertinent to this discussion, however, is Mandall’s insistence that people rethink their understanding of digital resources as ‘free’ – as in financially free and universally available. This is, of course, something that will be familiar to all researchers who have attempted to access a scholarly database only to find that their institution doesn’t subscribe. The material archived in these databases is, as Mandall correctly points out, most certainly not free, either to individuals or to institutions.
While these accessibility costs are relatively straightforward and evident to all, the costs in time and effort to produce the publications held in those archives is less readily quantified. As the publisher of many online and digital publications, some simultaneously published in print as well, Mandall argues that digital publications entail a similar, if not more arduous, labour on the part of those producing them. Such effort, however, seems not to accord the same respect as that associated with traditional print formats. Despite the growing demand for digital media, therefore, there appears to be little understanding of how properly to quantify and thereby ‘price’ digital outputs.
Mandall herself offers no easy answers to the dilemma of valuing digital media, nor, I expect, will we arrive at any such solutions at next week’s symposium. Perhaps, however, as with many issues in academia today, it’s enough to be engaging in such discussions with the hope of, and belief in, change, however gradual.