Why enhancement? Part 1

As we commence to complete this short six-month SURFFoundation project designed to ‘enhance’ four traditionally-published scholarly books, it seems appropriate to reflect on the ‘why’ of it all. This basic question became salient during comments made after a recently-held (21 April) workshop for the contributors of one of the four books, Virtual Knowledge, a workshop intended to train and provide practice to the group of 17 editors and authors involved in the project to use the Web platform WordPress that had been selected for enhancing this book (see book Website under construction). The salience took many forms, one of which was reflected in the low attendance at the workshop: some eight persons were present, three of whom were organizers, suggesting that less than half of the scholars involved in this intensive, collaborative publishing project actually showed up at an event designed to help them prepare a Web-based complement to a scholarly manuscript otherwise conventionally prepared. One interpretation of these figures is that the authors have little interest in an exercise at enhancement; their primary task, completion of the chapter contributions, had already been achieved and it was time to move on to more pressing career-related tasks: preparation of other texts for publication that may contribute to tenure or promotion.

Of course low attendance at any event gives its organizers reason to pause and wonder whether they have been doing their work properly and whether there is actually any interest in what they are doing. Yes, as organizers of the workshop we have such concerns and doubts. Regarding this specific event, however, it would be erroneous to equate low attendance with the quality of the actual event; those persons that did attend seemed to be positive about the content of the workshop, which was to provide support for preparation of a Web complement to the book manuscript. But about the general interest in enhancing scholarly publications, much can be said that extends well beyond the workshop, and that is the purpose of this and postings to follow. The issue in basic and fundamental form is: Why should we, scholars across the humanities and social sciences, be concerned about the enhancement of our (primarily) text-based, conventionally-published research?

When beginning to address this question it’s important to point out that scholars have been involved in concerns of enhancement since the earliest efforts at communication. Taking the term ‘scholar’ loosely, early cave drawings could be considered innovations of their time at recording events of tribal concern. Moving on to medieval times, it would be less far-fetched to consider the visualizations in the margins of sacred texts on parchment to be considered enhancements of the texts. And arriving in the period of modernity, the very first scholarly journal, Philosophical Transactions, launched by the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in 1665, involved initiation of a system of codification, which has come to be known as scholarly discourse, with the textual record as one important component of such specialized communicative exchange.

Contemporary scholarly practices related to publishing are replete with a wide range of strategies and protocols designed to enhance the text: from the organizational features of the text, divided into almost generic components  (abstract, intro, literature review, method, findings, conclusions); to the stylistic considerations in preparing a textual presentation (e.g., sentence construction, narrative techniques); to considerations in presenting data (quotations, tables, figures); to the embedding of text into a body of scholarship through discussion and documentation of related work (e.g., footnotes, references). As practicing scholars, we all do this every time we prepare a text and the most experienced of us  have engrained these procedures and protocols into our everyday practices, which have become almost unconscious routines. We know the ‘rules’ and how to apply them. These rules constitute forms of enhancement of scholarly texts and vary between different communities of scholars. Every time we switch from one community to another, we struggle at making the conversions required – especially regarding style preferences and referencing systems.

All of the above is more or less standard practice and everyday activity among practicing scholars. Less conventional is the plethora of enhancements made possible and being initiated in publications designed for the Web environment. Incremental changes in this regard are evident among the traditional publishers of journals; a casual glance at what houses like Taylor & Francis and SAGE Publications are doing in this regard signal the changes underway: pop-up abstracts, references, and figures; multiple forms of textual presentation in html and pdf formats; color illustrations, hypertext links embedded in the text and references; incorporation of videos and podcasts into the journal article. The degree and rate of adoption of these enhancements among scholarly journals varies considerably, but there is little doubt that the direction of change is toward incorporation of forms of enhancement to journal articles. An entire posting could be devoted to the rational and form of these changes, but here let me merely note two illustrations of journal transformation: the SAGE Publication Games and Culture and the Taylor & Francis title Information, Culture & Society (iCS). The first title recently began including podcasts of a selection of its articles on the journal website; the second now includes YouTube videos.

Of course we can and should wonder with each such enhancement about its suitability and relevance to the intentions of the journal and those of the authors of the article. These considerations are, however, identical to those concerns publishers, editors, and authors raise with every kind of enhancement, including those embedded within the everyday routines and protocols (e.g., which statements should be illustrated with what kinds of presentation of evidence or data, what documentation in the form of footnotes and references merit inclusion). It is improbable that each and every article in iCS merits an introductory video, but some articles will be enhanced in this manner when there is a sense that greater clarity will result regarding the purpose of the authors and regarding increased understanding on the part of readers.

Such enhancements of Web-based publications do not represent the core objective of the SURFFoundation tender; this is not a project in preparing Web sites for scholarly publications, but is a project designed to interrelate the components of scholarly communication in a meaningful and lasting manner. Without going into technical details in this post, this objective involves constructing a database of the components allowing for such interrelations ‘between and within’ publications. The objective involves preparing codes of identification of the ‘objects’ of a publication such that they can achieve a degree of suitable permanency. We all know the transient quality of material on the Web, available today and gone tomorrow, and for scholarship this characteristic is not conduciveness to two pinnacle criteria of quality scholarship: verification and replication. Finally, access is central in the model of enhancement at the core of the SURF project: access to the text and its related objects, and access to the original data.

Enormous barriers exist for each and every kind of access, some of which are constructed by publishers that maintain (high) subscription fees to the texts, some of which are condoned by authors that allow their work only to be available within restricted environments, some by researchers that express reluctance or refusal to make their data available for further inspection and analysis. Again, these issues are substantial and complex, and this introductory post on ‘why enhancement’ cannot do justice to them. That qualification stated, there is little doubt that these issues are high on the agendas of funding agencies and research institutions; the range of initiatives to establish open access journals and institutional funds for scholars to submit to such titles is testimony to this, as is the broad range of repositories recently developed by institutions and associations, sometimes obligated by funding agencies.

But what about books and their enhancement; is this area of scholarly publishing equally in need of enhancement as seems to be the case with the scholarly journal? Many of the issues are identical for books as for journals, and many illustrations of innovation are evident: authors that prepare manuscripts as public blogs allowing for comment (e.g., Vaidhyanathan’s Googlization of Everything), open peer review systems (e.g., MediaCommons), repositories of data (e.g., Data Archiving and Networked Services DANS) that make replication possible.

Are all possible enhancements necessary? Of course not; much depends on specific circumstances: the context, the audience, the publication and myriad other considerations. A mug shot of an author may be a less substantial form of enhancement than, say, hyperlinks embedded in the text. But a video presentation by the author on the topic of the text may lend a form of clarity impossible without another thousand words for each of the video frames, and that video can only be presented and integrated into the text when made available in a Web environment.

Let me conclude this excessively long and wandering post on ‘why enhancement’ with reference to a publication announced a few days ago: Al Gore’s most recent foray into environmentalism, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.  The author is admittedly less scholar than activist, but it takes little imagination to transform the features of his new book into a scholarly treatment of the same topic, all of which would be impossible for those scholars wedded to and restricted by the conventions of traditional print-based publishing. The story in Wired outlines the publishing initiative Push Pop Press, which in this case is development of an app for the iPad, but the Vimeo video of Gore explains ‘why enhancement’ perhaps better than even Gore might have imagined.

To be continued….

Nick Jankowski