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Between the Times and the Eternities: On the Very Idea of Online Scholarship

Someone once told me that he knew a scholar who, when giving one of his own books to a colleague, would write in the index, next to the recipient’s name, “I knew you would look here first.” All serious academics know (but will rarely admit) that their self-worth comes not from their family or their students or even their provost but from citations. Of course, as Foucault reminds us in “What is an author?” this notion of relating writing to a particular individual – the “author-function” – has not always been of primary importance to writing in the western world. One can easily imagine an alternative to our modern academia in which the goal was not individual achievement but anonymous cooperation. In contemporary academia, however, the coin of the realm is the number of citations that are made to one’s work. Being explicitly named in the body of the text has the highest value, and the next level down is being referenced in the footnotes. (To have an entire book dedicated to one’s ideas is to enter into the realm of academia’s Fortune 500.)

Citation styles differ significantly between the humanities and the sciences. In their guide to online style, Janice Walker and Todd Taylor note that scientific citation styles strive to have the very latest data (The Columbia Guide to Online Style[New York: Columbia University Press, 1998], pp. 2-3), and consequently the date of the publication is placed at the very beginning of the citation. In the humanities, the date comes at the end, signifying that ideas are unaffected by the passage of time. Walker and Taylor’s book is concerned with providing guidelines for referencing online material. They advise adding one feature that is not a part of the traditional citation styles of either the humanities or the sciences: access date.

In my citation of Walker and Taylor’s book it would be odd to include the day and time I read TheColumbia Guide to Online Style; one assumes that the book’s contents will remain relatively stable, that the copy I now have on my desk will be the same when someone else in another time and place checks my reference to the same edition of the book. But Internet material has an ephemeral, liminal quality that, I believe, affects the way we read it. The other day I discovered that an article that I had read on the Internet no longer exists. When I typed its URL the web page that opened announced simply, “File Not Found,” in an intimidating large font, followed by the helpful note “The requested object does not exist at the specified location. The link you followed is either outdated, inaccurate, or the server has been instructed not to let you have it.” Since the article I was trying to reread concerned the unstable nature of information on the Internet, I almost thought that the author had arranged its disappearance himself in order to demonstrate his point. The experience of information disappearing on the Internet has not been uncommon for anyone who does research on the Internet, and it feels qualitatively different from finding a book missing from a library shelf.

In many ways this unstable quality of the Internet has distinct advantages. When I want to know the weather conditions for a city to which I will be traveling, I do not care about what the weather conditions were for the last day, much less the last millennium.The information I gleam from Internet sources is particularly valuable because it constantly changes. When we wish, however, to heed Thoreau’s dictum, “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities,” the Internet’s ephemeral quality can seem a detriment. When it was revealed that political staffers had altered the entries for their candidates on the open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia, the veracity of the entire project came under question. This ephemeral quality of the Internet may be why, at least for now, I do not find an online academic journal as authentic or scholarly as I do a paper journal that has a virtual twin of itself online. When a scholar’s curriculum vitae lists only publications that are referenced by a URL-link, I admit that I wonder, Is this person ever going to write a real article?

Bioethics as an intellectual discipline seems inescapably caught between the Times and the Eternities. While I find that I can read Plato, Kant, and Wittgenstein in a generally ahistorical way, I cannot do so for much of the writing in bioethics. Bioethics articles written just thirty years ago produce in me a peculiar experience: it can feel a bit like reading about the fight between the 19th century Luddites and the textile manufacturers; one can understand the conflict but the passion seems a bit peculiar. Recently we were surprised to find that our own medical students have difficulty appreciating the emotional terrain about the AIDS debates at the end of the last century.

The Internet can be regarded as an ideal place for bioethics discussions, for it permits engagement with ongoing moral problems in the same slippery way it is experienced for many, an engagement with tacit knowledge and reflective equilibrium. The Internet can, however, be a forum that encourages philosophical myopia, for one can discover that everything one has written has merely responded to that particular month’s moral panic. But perhaps I should take heart that in the future, someone looking for this very writing, which I in my later wisdom may think not worthy of the Eternities, will only be able to discover “File Not Found.”

Published on: March 3, 2006
Published in: Bioethics, Media

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