Learning To Write Digitally: Digital Supplements, Hypertexts, and the Future of Scholarly Journals

By Roy Rosenzweig
[Note: This essay draws on the less formal remarks that I made at the Stanford Sloan conference. It is to be published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Change comes slowly in academic life. Place the American Historical Review for 1899 next to the current year's issues, and you discover a reassuring continuity. To be sure, the content of the articles has been transformed with "Creole Bodies in Colonial South Africa" displacing "Connecticut Loyalists." But the form of the articles and the journal itself remains largely unchanged-monographic articles are at the front of the journal and book reviews at the back; footnotes are on the bottom of the page; pages have about 500 words; articles put their thesis statements upfront and conclusions at the end; articles have gotten a bit longer but not drastically so. If the AHR's J. Franklin Jameson were to rise from the dead (and perhaps this is not implausible since I'm told that someone once called the American Historical Association to report that she was channeling the former journal editor), he would be able to resume his editorial duties without too much trouble.

Conventional wisdom tells us that computers and the Internet will rapidly change all this. "Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics," proclaims business pundit Peter Drucker. "It took more than 200 years for the printed book to create the modern school. It won't take nearly that long for the next big change." Such exaggerated predictions should not, however, lull us into thinking that scholarly practices will remain unaltered by new technologies. Rather, they should suggest that the more likely scenario is what Phil Agre calls the "digestion model." "As a new technology arises," he observes, "various organized groups of participants in an existing institutional field selectively appropriate the technology in order to do more of what they are already doing-assimilating new technology to old roles, old practices, and old ways of thinking. And yet once this appropriation takes place, the selective amplification of particular functions disrupts the equilibrium of the existing order, giving rise to . . . a new, perhaps qualitatively different equilibrium."

How will scholars and, in particular, scholarly journals "digest" the new technology? What will the promised new equilibrium look like? Those are the questions that colleagues and I from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and two leading humanities journals-the Journal of American History and American Quarterly-have been wrestling with over the past year or two. In a Mickey Rooneyesque spirit of "Lets Put on a Show," we decided that it was time to try out some things rather than simply sponsoring more theorizing about what the cyberfuture might look like. And I want to report on the results of our tentative, low-budget (actually no-budget) forays in cyberspace.

Our efforts, of course, built on considerable (and better-funded) experimentation that has already taken place. Not surprisingly, the most rapid changes have come in science and technology journals, where it looks like electronic only publication will become increasingly common. Here, the model of instant publication pioneered by Paul Ginsparg, a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, whose data base of scientific papers is growing at the rate of 25,000 per year, has been particularly influential Last month, for example, the National Institutes of Health announced plans for a similar on-line archive of scholarly papers in the life sciences, PubMed Central.

Cyberjournals-covering such diverse topics as TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism and Post Modern Culture-have emerged in the humanities as well. But print humanities journals are likely to survive, in part because of the importance of narrative or discursive article s(as opposed to the report on research findings), which are often consumed at a more leisurely pace away from the computer screen. Nor do humanists care about scholarly currency in quite the same way as physicists or doctors. Last year's reflection on Jane Austen remain a good deal more compelling than last year's study of adverse drug reactions. At least until breakthroughs in screen display make on-screen reading easier, the most important experiments are likely to be-as Agre's model suggests-hybrids in which digital publication supplements print versions.

The most longstanding experiments have been in creating on-line archives of journal backfiles. The advantages of these digital archives-ease of storage and searching-are obvious. The best known example is JSTOR, which has 112 scholarly journals currently on line. Thanks to JSTOR I have just sent twenty-five years-a full bookcase worth-of the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History to the recycling bin. Most JSTOR journals are at least five years old; Johns Hopkins University Press's Project Muse has been the most aggressive publisher of electronic versions of current print journals. Muse has more than forty on-line journals (largely in the humanities) and promises to increase that to at least 110 by next year.

It seems likely that before very long every print journal will have its electronic clone. Indeed, such clones already exist even for many journals that have not created them explicitly. Commercial operations like Bell and Howell's ProQuest and Northern Light offer electronic versions of hundreds of scholarly journals on a per-article basis-thereby "unbundling" the carefully bound products that journal editors have crafted. Ostensibly, there is no electronic edition of the Journal of Modern History, but you can, in fact, read it on line through ProQuest.

Dramatic as these changes in distribution and storage may be, they do not alter the essential intellectual product offered by the journals. Does electronic media allow us to do anything different than what journals have done for the past century? One obvious-but thus far relatively unexplored opportunity-is for what I would call the "digital supplement," in which we take advantage of the cheapness of digital storage to make available materials that are of interest to more specialized and dispersed audiences and can not be provided economically to those audiences in print. Most scholarly work involves the creation of an "archive" of some sort, although generally that archive remains stowed away in the individual scholars file cabinet or computer.

The Journal of American History's March 1999 round table on interpreting the Declaration of Independence through translation was a natural candidate for exploring the possibilities of the digital supplement. Although the print journal was able to devote a substantial number of pages to the round table, it could not also include the many versions of the Declaration of Independence, as it has been translated into different languages and at different times-an archive that its authors had assembled in the process of writing their articles. On the Web, we were able to include this richer documentation. Where possible, moreover, we also included "naive" retranslations back into English so that those who don't know the different languages can get a sense of how some key concepts and words have been rendered.

Two other features of this project also recommended it for on-line publication. First, we were able to make this an open-ended and evolving project. We welcomed contributions of other translations of the Declaration of Independence (along with commentary about those translations), and versions in Bulgarian, Turkish, and Estonian now seem to be in the offing. Second, given the international character of the project, it seemed particularly appropriate to put this on an international mediumwhere it has, in fact, attracted significant readership from outside the United States.

One very much unanticipated-but quite significant-result of the translation into the electronic medium has been the broadening of the audience for a journal that primarily and traditionally reaches professional historians. While non-professionals surely wander across print copies of the JAH in large public libraries, it seems-anecdotally-that this open publication format has attracted a greater share of non-academic readers. Indeed, all of the email I have received about the project has been from non-historians. A high school English teacher from Texas wrote, for example, to say that he was going to use the translations in a class exercise on the Declaration as literature.

Such projects easily establish the way that we can do more on line-offer fuller documentation, reach larger audiences. But can we do anything different? This is the distinction that Janet Murray draws in her recent book, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace between, "additive" and "expressive" features of new media. She makes the useful analogy to early film, which were initially called "photoplays" and were thus thought of as "merely additive art forms, which combined photography with theatre. Only when filmmakers learned to use montage, close-ups, zooms and the like as part of storytelling did photoplays give way to the new expressive form of movies.

What would a scholarship that made expressive rather than just additive use of new media look like? That was the goal of a more ambitious project that we undertook last year with American Quarterly. In setting up this project, we wanted to encourage unconventional departures in form while also retaining the conventional validation and peer review that characterizes scholarly publication. But we soon realized that that if we asked people to submit hypertext essays for review and then, as would be expected, we rejected many of them, the authors would have no other journals where they could send their work. Our compromise was to invite people to submit proposals for on-line scholarly "articles." Out of twenty proposals, we selected four to which we gave a go ahead.

The four took different approaches to putting scholarship on line.

Thomas Thurston's "Hearsay of the Sun: Photography, Identity, and the Law of Evidence in Nineteenth-Century American Courts" does something at first glance very straightforward but rarely, if ever, accomplished in print scholarship. It presents not just an argument about the legal status of photography in the previous century but also virtually all the evidence that underlies (or even undercuts) the argument. One can read Thurston or one can read forty-two court decisions, articles, and excerpts from various novels and legal treatises. Or, ideally, one can read both. Of course, given enough pages (not a small matter), this might be done as well in a print journal.

But Thurston also offers us something else-a system for seamlessly linking argument and evidence-a new scholarly technology if you will. He does this by taking advantage of two simple features of Web browsers: the "anchor" tag, which makes it possible to move the reader directly from one reference to the paragraph from which it originated and the "frame," which enables Thurston to keep all the different pieces (argument, footnotes, sources, illustrations) of his "article" on a single screen.

James Castonguay's "The Spanish-American War in U.S. Media Culture" also provides us with a scholarly innovation in the way that it connects evidence and argument, although it does it a way that is probably more "additive" than expressive." Still, significantly and perhaps for the first time in film scholarship, the "illustrations" include actual films rather than just film stills. This demonstrates Jerome McGann's point that we no longer need "to use books to study books," and to be limited by the "scale of our tools."

For a scholar of comics, the "scale of tools" available in print publication are also limiting. A print journal would find it prohibitively expensive to include the more than fifty color illustrations that accompany David Westbrook's "From Hogan's Alley to Coconino County" Moreover, Westbrook also enables a kind of simple interactivity that print cannot easily replicate-he encourages the reader to interact with the evidence and test his or her ability to see what the seasoned scholar notices. Take a look, for example, at Richard F. Outcault's September 20, 1896 "Yellow Kid" strip. Westbrook's initial caption, "The Kid as Anti-Authoritarian," provokes one to consider the cartoon and think for yourself about why Westbrook has given it that label. But after you have made your own reading of the cartoon, you can click on the caption and be shown what Westbrook had in mind-the abuse being heaped on the hapless dog-catcher is now highlighted in red and explained with a supplementary caption. Even more, you can click on this second-level caption and be taken to a much more detailed discussion of class relations in Outcault's strips.

In this interactivity and hypertextuality, Westbrook goes beyond providing a richer body of evidence to offering a different mode of argumentation. Considered from a linear perspective, Westbrook's essay consists of three different sections with an "appendix" including all of the illustrations used in the essay. But conceptually, he argues that he is doing something very different. Each of the three sections, he writes, "approaches the subject matter from a different direction and defends a distinct analysis." Still, he maintains that the three threads still add up to a single essay "because none of the threads can stand alone. Each depends on concepts and observations built up in the other threads."

Louise Krasniewicz and Michael Blitz's "Dreaming Arnold Schwarzenegger" shares with the other three essays an interest in using the expansive space of digital media to present a more than is possible in print. In their case, it is quite a bit more. Among other things, their site includes descriptions of their 150 dreams about Arnold; brief comments on at least eighteen different Arnold films; detailed essays on two films; fifteen magazine covers with Arnold on them; and dozens of 1995 emails between Krasniewicz and Blitz discussing love, life, and Arnold. But this exhaustive (and perhaps exhausting) archive does not exhaust the site, which also contains dozens of links to other Web sites from The Laboratory of Neurophysiology at Harvard to the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic Body Building Competition as well a multiple modes of navigation.

If all of this seems a bit chaotic, that is, according to Krasniewicz and Blitz, precisely the point. They were attracted to hypertext, they tell us, because the conventional scholarly forms (book, article, and conference paper) did not seem to meet the needs of their subject and their analysis. "We needed a medium, a forum," they write, "that would allow us to incorporate not just the more formal components of investigative research, but also the kinds of discoveries and reflections that are more traditionally relegated to the margins of qualitative research." They find in hypertext "a mechanism for connecting disparate information in the same way that a dream does." At least for Krasniewicz and Blitz, hypertext doesn't merely do a better job of representing the fullness of their work on Schwarzenegger; it is the only way of representing it.

Collectively, then, these essays point up the potential advantages of the new medium for the presentation of scholarship. Still, I think that they are, in the end, more successful as additive than expressive uses of new media. They give us more (Thurston's primary sources, Castonguay's films, Westbrook's comics, and Krasniewicz and Blitz's everything but the kitchen sink), but have they done anything different, have they transformed the nature or quality of scholarly argumentation? Perhaps the strongest case for that may be to argue that at some level more does become different. As Randy Bass ponts out in one of the three commentaries on the experiment that we published in the print version of American Quarterly, they have altered the traditional scholarly relationship between argument and evidence, between story and archive. This seems particularly evident in the work of Krasniewicz and Blitz, where it could be said that the archive is the article.

But what is most important is that these essays provoke us to think about the intellectual and practical problems of doing scholarship in cyberspace. And I want to close by talking about those practical problems, since unless we attend to them the "digestion" of new technology is likely to cause considerable indigestion. One is the way that the unsettled state of the technology expands the job of Web authors. They must, for example, become software testers since pages designed for Netscape on a Wintel machine will look different when viewed in Internet Explorer or on a Macintosh.

Electronic authors also need to become designers and programmers. Authors for the print American Quarterly are not expected to know page layout software; electronic authors must know considerably more than that. Bring up one of the images in Westbrook's article and "view source." Here are just the first eight lines of about 250 that you will see:

"if (document.layers) {

visible = 'show';

hidden = 'hide';

}

else if (document.all) {

visible = 'visible';

hidden = 'hidden';

}

Not exactly what most graduate programs in the humanities teach. In some ways, an even more demanding skill that this work requires is design judgement-something most notably on display in Krasniewicz and Blitz's attractive site. One might argue that such matters should not be in the purview of authors and scholars, but George Landow points out that until the 1930s, he writes, "authors routinely wandered around the typesetting shop at Oxford University Press while their books were being set and were permitted to render advice and judgement."

These problems-technical, production, design-do not bother print authors in scholarly journals chiefly because such journals operate according to a very conventional set of standards in layout, typography, and format that were already well established by 1899. And, in the end, it is the absence of clear standards that makes this scholarly work in hypertext both exciting and problematic. Standards are inherently conservative; they are, in part, what make conventional scholarly articles so conventional. But while such standards can be deadening, they also make scholarly articles easy to read-at least by those who know the "codes." Most academics can very quickly get the main points of a scholarly article-they can rapidly find the "thesis" in the first few pages; the conclusions on the last two pages; and a sense of the sources used through a quick scan of the footnotes.

Such reading skills are worthless when confronting these hypertext essays. Not only is the "thesis" hard to find quickly; it is not even clear there is a thesis. Where is the beginning? The end? Reader expectations about the investment of time required to master an essay are entirely disrupted. Do you need to read Krasniewicz and Blitz's 150 dreams or view all 64 film clips in Castonguay's essay to have "read" their articles? In effect, these essays undercut the unwritten social contract that exists between readers and writers of scholarly essays-a social contract in which the author agrees to follow conventions of argumentation, organization, and documentation and the reader agrees to devote a certain amount of time to give the article a "fair" reading. Perhaps that is why, these innovative hypertexts have been read (or at least visited) less than the more conventional digital supplements that we posted on the Declaration of Independence.

Evolving new standards and conventions-a new scholarly social contract-is not going to be easy. But if we are serious about trying to find ways to do something genuinely "expressive" with the new media-to create a scholarship that would unsettle J. Franklin Jameson-then we need to attend seriously to developing the next generation of writers (and readers) of scholarly hypertexts.