There is this nagging problem in literary studies. How do we teach our students to make the difference between a googlebooks scan and a good digital edition? In order to avoid admitting that they don’t know the answer to this question, most literary scholars refuse any quotation of any digital source in term papers. Since some may be rotten, then we’d better consider them all unusable. It will protect us from contamination. At least, with books, we know what the deal is about. The big, expensive, hardcover books are the good ones. Some softcover are o.k. for students to quote from. That’s about it. Life can be so simple (though expensive, but hey, let’s have the library order the really expensive ones) sometimes.
Closing one’s eyes on the raise of digital sources is stupid at best, more likely irresponsible.
I have been defending this position for a few years now and not made many friends within my analog scholarly community. I have come to accept the ostracism that goes with the proactive defense of such a position. I am too deeply convinced that this is a major issue to pretend that it is “just another question of infrastructure”. Like a series of other things (for instance the way we integrate refugees to our education system at large), this is one of those moments in which we can and should shape the future actively – one on which our children will judge us and the consequences of which they will have to live with. There is no way around this.
So, what is the deal?
Basically, anyone can put anything in the internet. Just like, incidentally, almost anyone can print almost anything. Only we recognize the De Gruyter books. We recognize apparatus, we recognize a good introduction, we know what we want to find in a historical commentary. This, we can teach our students. Within the scholarly communities, we have journals, we have impartial reviewing, we have quality assessment everywhere.
Now there is no reason why we could not have quality insurance mechanisms online that fulfill this function and guarantee a clear and readable quality ranking. Quality control is essential for digital scholarship. It is a domain in which we need scholars to be more active than they are now. We should think about how to make this possible and realizable (obviously, it will hardly come from the community itself when it comes to literary studies…). There is absolutely no reason for this to become something solely technical. The technical aspects of a digital resource have to be checked, yes. But a scholarly digital edition is a scholarly achievement, which has to be peer-reviewed by scholars. We need a system in which the technically and scholarly innovative, momentum-giving resources can be labelled as such – just as the publication of a paper in a prestigious journal is a witness to its higher quality than the publication in a volume that your office colleague is directing.
We stand at a point where we can not only set technical and scholarly standards in the assessment of digital resources, but also social standards. We can at least try to operationalize transparency as much as possible. It would be delusional to think that digital peer-review could be completely transparent and flawless. The communities are too small for that. When I am asked for a review, I have to send back due to conflicts of interests almost half of the time. Even when the name of the author is blurred, I sometimes recognize them. But the community will grow and this fact does not have, fundamentally, to refrain us from conceiving safeguards to put along the road of a responsible quality assessment for digital scholarly resources.
We should be two or three steps further than that by now, really. We should be talking about international quality standards. But we’re not there yet. So let’s begin with this: How do I teach my students (and my colleagues) what a good digital scholarly edition is about?