The Changes Around Us

One of the things I have noticed over the past few years is how much easier the type of research I like to do is getting. No longer do I have to go to one of the massive university libraries; no longer do I have to wait for inter-library loan. No longer do I have to put one avenue of investigation on hold while waiting to view hard-to-find sources. Because much of what I want to read first was generally published before 1923, almost everything I need is available on the web, generally from Gutenberg or Bartleby, if not from a university website.

Not only that, but the footnotes and bibliographies in my newer books often lead me to books I can buy for almost nothing, getting them much more quickly than I ever could before and removing the danger (for me) of forgetting to return them to their homes.

Last night, I lay down on the bed to do a little preliminary reading, my Kindle Fire and a stack of books beside me. As I read, I was able to look up additional information at my ease, finding and ordering–and downloading–other books. I was happier than a pig in… well….

None of this is new, of course, just easier. My laptop could do all the Kindle can–and more. But it is bulky and gets rather hot. Libraries, though I had to travel to them, offer almost everything I can find on the web.

Ease, though, is changing research in the humanities. The things that can be found quickly and easily on the internet are those that are going to get most of the attention from scholars–who are as lazy as anyone else. We are as bad as anyone at not refining our searches when we get a million hits, of looking at only the first five of the Google results.

Things behind paywalls are going to start to suffer from this–if they haven’t already. With the amount of information available for free, fewer and fewer are going to be willing to pay for an article–certainly not the $30 or so that is often charged by the Elseviers of the world. The top journals remain profit centers, but they are beginning to lose their scholarly centrality–especially in the humanities (though, from what I hear, there’s quite a big rebellion beginning in the sciences). For a long time, they have been the playpen of the old guard, the places where those in academic power can express themselves (though rather tepidly and within constraints established by past generations of scholars). Now, they are being bypassed by open online journals and even by blogs. Significant information can almost always be found elsewhere.

Unless they (and their back issues) are easily available on the web, humanities journals run the risk of becoming backwaters. This will certainly be true as alternative venues for scholarship become acceptable to hiring, promotion, and tenure committees–as is now happening. The Modern Language Association (MLA), seeing this, has taken an important step towards making sure that the work it publishes will not simply disappear by giving control of copyright to its authors. This will allow essays to be posted elsewhere by the scholars, allowing them to keep their articles within the greater conversations evolving through the internet.

The journals and publishers that don’t follow suit will soon find authors reluctant to contribute. I would love to have any number of book chapters of mine available on the web, but am reluctant, for I don’t control the copyright. From now on, I will inquire, as I agree to submit, and may reconsider if I do not retain that control. After all, I am interested in readers and impact, not in the tiny bit of money an essay of mine might earn for anyone.

Things are changing. Not in any cataclysmic way, but changing nonetheless. We’ll see if companies and copyright follow.