Why Publish Original Scholarship On-Line?

I can think of at least seven good reasons to publish original classical scholarship on my own site where anyone can read it, and only three against. In favor are these:

  1. Access: Anyone can read what I have to say. Most of those interested in the structure of Silius Italicus’ Punica (link) or the text of Cymbeline (link), or any of the other subjects on which I have posted or will be posting, are probably academics with easy access to JSTOR, but not all. I personally have to drive 35 miles each way and pay for parking whenever I need to look up articles in even the more widely-distributed classical journals, and I’m sure there are others who have even less convenient access to scholarship. Easier access to my work may turn out to be a competitive advantage. Not that classical papers are often interchangeable, but, ceteris paribus, those that are easier to get hold of will be read more.
  2. Immediacy: There is no need to wait a year or two or three for what I’ve written to appear in print: I can upload it as soon as it’s done. As I get older, I find this instant gratification more compelling. Friends and colleagues can also read it immediately, even without access to JSTOR, and I don’t have to spend money on postage for hard-copy offprints. (Then again, offprints have their charms.)
  3. Accuracy: In the short run, there will surely be more mistakes in my web-publications, given the lack of any editor or proofreader other than myself. However, in the long run, there will certainly be fewer, since any that are found can and will be removed, and there is no specific date before the death of the author at which that becomes impossible. I will, of course, record and date any significant changes I make in each paper, and credit the authors of those I don’t think of myself. (Instant gratification for them, too.) Publishing my work in blog-form with open comments means that these will often be obvious.
    Journal referees are often wonderfully helpful, and usually work harder and more systematically at correcting errors than ordinary readers, but it seems likely that the casual remarks of all those interested in the subject could be at least as useful, if less well-organized, as long as they are abundant and come from a variety of points of view. Given sufficient time, a sufficient number of interested blind men should be able to describe an elephant more accurately than a single sighted man facing a deadline.
    A commented blog offers opportunities for dialogue, as well. If comments are unconvincing, they can be argued with, or rejected, politely or otherwise. Defying unconvincing objections would not require one to withdraw the paper, find another journal, and wait another however-many months or years for another set of (possibly incompatible) comments.
  4. Up-to-Dateness: Printed texts are often out of date before they even appear, partly because pertinent work has a way of appearing just when the work has gone to press, partly because no one can read everything and it’s easy to miss important work that could have been included if only it had been found in time. The last two things I looked for in recent editions were not there. (Should I provide details? Not tonight: I want to post this before midnight.) Whether text, commentary, or more traditional paper, an on-line publication whose author is still alive and keeping up with the latest research – or even just responding to comments from others who are keeping up – need never be out of date by more than a day or two. Careful choice of an intellectual heir may even remove the limitation of death.
  5. Microscholarship: Nothing is too small for the web. (Or too large, though that’s never been a problem for me.) Scholars have been known to publish collections of tiny notes on tiny problems as ‘adnotatiunculae’ or ‘limaturae’, but editors of paper journals are not fond of them. Posted on-line and properly indexed, these will be easy to find, and very easy to read without even leaving one’s comfy chair. If good enough, such scholarly tidbits will eventually be gathered up into standard commentaries.
    In passing, I should mention that web-publication also makes the stupider kind of index or concordance superfluous: once a text is on-line, Ctrl-F will do the job. The more intelligent kind, the analytical index or lemmatized lexicon, can be done on-line as easily as in book form. The on-line version can also be consulted much more easily: it’s always quicker to type in the word or form or name you’re looking for than to leaf through many pages looking for it.
  6. Unity of Design: On-line work can be recycled and collected for the convenience of author and reader, without having to worry about copyrights and the qualms of publishers. I have often seen collections of adversaria on a particular author or work in which some of the notes say ‘see my paper in journal x’. I would have liked to have all the notes on a single work in a single place, but can certainly understand why a traditional publisher would not want to include something that is not new, even when it is not already copyrighted by a different publisher. An author who is his own publisher can just paste previous work in where it belongs in a larger work, with or without changes and updates.
  7. Illustrations: Even for a lit critter such as myself, illustrations are sometimes necessary to make a point, and the web can often provide excellent color illustrations at no cost, though we do have to watch out for link-rot and permissions. One paper I hope to finish in the next month or two is a revision of the geography of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Part II. If I can get the permissions, I can illustrate it far more profusely than any journal would allow, at zero cost. For this paper, a print journal would probably have told me to omit the map on page 4 and refer readers to a classical atlas, which would have made it slightly less intelligible.

What about the reasons against?

  1. Lack of Respect I: There is of course one very large disadvantage to publishing one’s own work on one’s own website. With no stamp of approval from a first- or second-rate journal and no official refereeing, there is no guarantee of quality, probably less scholarly respect, and definitely far less credit towards tenure. That matters very little to me, since (a) I’ve published enough (link) to have a pretty good idea what is worth publishing and what is not, and (b) I’m not on a tenure-track or likely ever to be. That means that I can afford to care very much whether people read my stuff and find it convincing, not at all whether it would convince a committee to hire or promote me. (Do feel free to contact me if anything I write here makes you want to hire me to teach Latin.) I am very curious to see how long it takes for someone to follow my example.
  2. Lack of Respect II: If classicists start publishing their work on their own websites, and this is counted for tenure, there is a danger that the web will be flooded with crap by desperate scholars – as Amazon has been flooded with print-on-demand reprints of out-of-copyright books, reprints whose quality is always dubious and often abysmal. On the other hand, open comments will provide some promise of quality even for personal ‘vanity’ websites, and those that do not allow comments, or selectively delete them, can be (a) shunned or (b) freely discussed on other sites where the author has no power to delete.
  3. The Other Side of Access: There is one real danger of on-line scholarship that worries me. I have published papers on some of the filthier passages of Latin literature, and have also taught at high schools and middle schools, as well as universities, both secular and religious. I’ve never had any problem with a student being offended by something I wrote in a journal, because none of them has ever read the papers in question. (I’ve posted PDFs of most of my publications on this site (link), but felt obliged to omit the ones I wouldn’t want my younger students to read.) The fact that anything I write on-line is available to anyone with a web-connection means that a student who wanted to get me in trouble with parents, teachers, or administrators can do so with a simple link, where a visit to a major research library would previously have been necessary. Writing on-line about some passages of Roman Satire, or Martial, or Aristophanes, might mean never being able to teach high school again. This danger can be palliated, but not removed entirely. I hope that participants in my Persius seminar (see previous post) will not be too enthusiastically blunt about the meanings of some passages, though I won’t ask them to do as Housman did in his paper “Praefanda” and write their remarks in Latin. I’ll have more to say on this in my suggested Rules for Commentators late tonight or early tomorrow.

In Conclusion: Digital Humanists have been arguing over ‘green’ and ‘gold’ Open Access for quite some time. What I have in mind is something better than either, the ultimate in Open Access: just post your work on the web where anyone can read it. (Or almost anyone: some governments, and many employers, ban even inoffensive scholarly websites for no apparent reason, but most of us outside a few countries can read whatever we want, though we may have to wait until we get home from work.) So what color is my ‘Extreme Open Access’? Green, gold, . . . what comes next? I don’t know, maybe ‘transparent’?

Note: Comments on this post – or any other – will be very much appreciated. Your first comment will be moderated, but once it is approved, further comments will appear immediately, unless you write something so offensive that I feel compelled to ban you.

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