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Scott Pound

The emergence of online scholarship is a momentous development and the occasion for some serious rethinking of the scholarly knowledge system. This serious rethinking has been happening in earnest for some time, but it isn’t just about technology. It extends deep into our conceptions of the historical, social, and institutional dimensions of scholarly practice.The scholarly knowledge system we have today originated in the seventeenth century. It sanctifies the individuality, originality, objectivity, and intellectual property of scholars working alone (or in small groups) within a knowledge system defined by the fixity, uniformity, and proprietary status of print. Now, networked IT proffers an apparatus in which information and knowledge no longer tend to be fixed and proprietary; where cultural breakthroughs occur as the result of exercises in collective intelligence, large-scale collaboration, assemblage, and continuous revision; and where authorship and authority are increasingly established communally and anonymously rather than individually.

By extending the locus of cultural production from the individual to the network, digital media challenge the existing scholarly knowledge system’s epistemic foundations: its basis in individual scholars seeking knowledge and authority pegged to qualitative assessments of originality and authorship, its dependence on an understanding of knowledge as proprietary, and its alignment of knowledge with anti-rhetorical, anti-literary discourse. Understanding the impact of these changes requires scholars to rethink their most basic assumptions. At hand are new possibilities for producing, structuring, and mobilizing knowledge via digital tools and networks. At stake are some of the core principles and practices that define scholarly practice.

What constitutes knowledge, publication, research, peer review, authorship, and authority is quickly changing. Each of these sites of epistemic disruption raises stubborn questions. How will scholars harness the capabilities of networked media and still maintain rigorous standards of scholarly literacy and authority? How will institutions of higher learning integrate new forms of scholarly productivity into their review and reward structures? What will it take for peer-reviewed online scholarship to achieve a comparable status to print forms?

Ultimately, the answer to these questions has less to do with technology than it does with how and whether scholars choose to use technology. As Jerome McGann points out,

Many realize that online scholarly publication is the natural and inevitable response to this crisis of scholarly and educational communication. How to bring about the transition to online publication is the $64,000 question. And it’s not the technology that makes the problem so difficult, as the examples of online journal publication, JSTOR … and Project Muse … demonstrate. The Jordan will not be crossed until scholars and educators are prepared not simply to search and access archived materials online – which is increasingly done – but to publish and to peer-review online – to carry out our daily educational and research work in digital forms.1

McGann’s point is echoed by Kathleen Fitzpatrick in her groundbreaking book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy.

Changing our technologies, our ways of doing research, and our modes of production and distribution of the results of that research are all crucial to the continued vitality of the academy—and yet none of these changes can come about unless there is first a profound change in the ways that scholars think about their work. Until scholars really believe that publishing on the web is as valuable as publishing in print… few will be willing to risk their careers on a new way of working….2

If the primary driver of change will be the attitudes and activities of scholars, then what factors will influence what scholars think and do? Probably the most important issue currently is what Michael Jensen calls the “response to abundance.”3

By far the most obvious cultural change in the past twenty years is the staggering increase in the volume of information that networked digital media allow us to store and transmit. Google’s first index in 1998 counted 26 million unique URLs on the Web. Just ten years later, in July 2008, Google marked the one trillion milestone. In 2010, on the order of 500 billion images were captured, and YouTube was streaming more than a billion videos a day.4 Pick your metaphor, it’s a “deluge,’ a “tsunami,” a “flood” of information we’re contending with.

No doubt every age feels this way, and it’s true that as far back as the Renaissance scholars have complained about information overload, but there’s a fundamental difference between the current, digital information ecosystem and the legacy model based in print. Because printing is expensive, and knowledge is culturally valuable, print-based scholarly systems use a rigorous form of front end filtering to ensure quality and return on investment. Printed knowledge is, by definition, scarce and precious. The volume of scholarly material published every year notwithstanding, the academy is traditionally a cultural bottleneck.

Obviously, the Internet is no bottleneck. It’s a firehose. Because the information that comes to us via digital networks is “so cheap as to be free,”5 moves extraordinarily fast, and is almost totally searchable, filtering can wait. Add to that the fact that the volume of the web is virtually unlimited and increases all the time and we confront a completely transformed information environment. The absence of front end filtering means, as everyone knows, the web plays host to everything “from brilliant insight to scurrilous rumor…. wildly empowered cranks, lunatics, and every kind of long-tail intellectual market appearing in network culture.”6

In the face of such abundance, individuals need devices to manage and regulate their attention. For Richard Lanham in his book The Economics of Attention, the thing that tells people what to attend to is style. He sees the Internet as a fundamentally rhetorical space in which writers and information designers use verbal and visual rhetoric to win attention. Forming the backdrop for this romance between style and attention is the history of literature and aesthetics. We use stylistic devices to regulate our attention because “attracting attention is what style is all about.”7

Jensen agrees that individuals need devices to manage and regulate their attention, but his sense of what those those devices are is very different. For Jensen, websites are not optimized for human attention; they are optimized for the programmed attention of machines, bots, crawlers, aggregators, and automated readers. He sees the Internet solely as a computational environment where attention is engineered via the programmable functions of Web 2.0 because “Web 2.0 is all about responding to abundance.”(Jensen, “Authority 3.0,” 298.))

Do digital communications primp for people or do they cavort in front of an audience of programmable functions? Neither view is really complete. Lanham’s emphasis on style overlooks the fact that before users attend to style as a means of sorting and selecting information they have already employed a battery of computational filters. Jensen ignores the fact that in addition to employing computational devices to find, sort, and select information, users also routinely respond to design, ethos, and style.

For the most part, the scholarly community has managed to artificially maintain its traditional grounding in information scarcity through hefty subscription rates, low acceptance rates, and slow mechanisms for vetting research. The emergence of digital open access platforms for scholarly publishing disrupt the traditional operating model in a way that invites a rapid reorientation of scholarly communication in terms of information abundance. As Jensen suggests, “I think we’re speeding – yes, speeding – toward a time when scholarship and how we make it available, will be affected by information abundance.”8

As scholarly communication continues to come out into the light of a larger information rich culture via open access, it will face a new set of circumstances defined by information abundance. Scholarship will become an attention economy. Traditionally, academic writing has derived much of its authority from its explicitly anti-rhetorical stance, its relative indifference to audience, and its refusal of style. Such a model can only exist in the context of information scarcity. Information abundance dictates that scholars, like all people who research and write in digital environments, will attract attention through a combination of style and digital functions (linking, searching, tagging, and aggregating). Subjecting scholarly communication to an attention economy will change the stakes of academic research in ways we are just beginning to understand.

The interviews and articles assembled in this inaugural issue of Amodern show a remarkably diverse range of responses to media change and ask us to think not only about a digital future but about how we should integrate existing methods and forms with emergent possibilities.

One thing seems especially clear: more important than the promise of networked digital media is the complexity of the questions they raise for scholars. Jerome McGann puts it succinctly in our conversation for this issue, “the limitations of the technology are less a problem than the effect that the promise of the technology is having – in the public sphere but also in the intramural world of humanities education and research.” McGann’s argument, developed at length in a forthcoming book, is that we do not need a new program of humanities study, a Digital Humanities, but rather “a recovery of philological method for our changed circumstances. Philology in a New Key.” In opting to celebrate the philologist over the critic or even the scholar McGann singles out a practical set of needs: “to preserve, monitor, investigate, and augment our cultural inheritance, including the various material means by which it has been realized and transmitted.”

Also in this issue, Amodern managing editor Michael Nardone interviews Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Scholarly Communication of the Modern Language Association. Fitzpatrick brings unique experience in the social and institutional aspects of digital scholarly publishing to her role with the MLA. Her work tracks a range of issues from notions of authorship and the traditional peer review process to the role of the university press and library.

Gary Genosko’s contribution to this issue echoes McGann’s amodernism in its attempt to discern new directions for academic publishing from past practices, in this case Marshall McLuhan’s shape-shifting journal Explorations. Using his own early forays in digital publishing as a touchstone Genosko examines McLuhan’s experiements in publishing as evidence of “the transdisciplinary ambitions of the communication-culture nexus.” While as a print journal Explorations only hinted at intermediality, “McLuhan’s desire to reach beyond the walls of the ivory tower, to connect with wider non-specialist publics, without becoming dependent on agency funding, yet generating it through novel inter-institutional arrangements, constitutes a valuable legacy in its own right and delivers a lesson about survival tactics for any new publication with similar ambitions.”

Nick Monfort’s article in this issue takes another legacy format, the technical report, and imagines a place for it within the architecture of the online scholarly journal as a venue for unvetted interdisciplinary discourse that prioritizes flexibility, urgency, and sharability. Although such work would not be recognized for purposes of tenure and promotion, it would “serve the intellectual purpose of fostering what Vannevar Bush called the ‘great record’ of scholarship and research.”

In the future, how will the micro units of digital communication (links, blog entries, tweets, and wikis) relate to the traditional macro units of scholarly publishing (books, chapters, articles, book reviews, notes)? This is the question Johanna Drucker asks in her contribution to this issue. Drucker’s argument is that the micro unit will prevail and with it will emerge a complicated set of new metrics for assessing impact. “The possibilities are rapidly becoming probabilities,” Drucker writes, “that we will soon be tracking the memes and tropes of individual authors through some combination of attribute tags, link-back trails, and other identifiers that let can generate quantitative data and map a scholar’s active life.”

Reflecting on the axiom that “To create a future for writing requires that we understand that writing has a history,” Ben Robertson examines the history of online scholarly journals with an eye toward the future. If the scholarly journal is to have a future, Robertson points out, “we must ask whether that future will be newly constituted or determined by that logic and gesture we transfer from old media to new.” Robertson’s argument sets us down squarely in front of the abundance problem. With the bandwidth to publish every scholarly article that gets written comes the liquidation of publication as a cultural value. Scholars will need to decide how to proceed.

  1. Jerome McGann, “The Future is Digital,” Journal of Victorian Culture 13:1 (2008), 82. 

  2. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 10. 

  3. Michael Jensen, “Authority 3.0: Friend or Foe to Scholars,” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 39:1 (October 2007), 298. 

  4. James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (New York: Pantheon, 2011), 397. 

  5. Jensen, “Authority 3.0,” 298. 

  6. Bruce Sterling, “Atemporality for the Creative Artist,”, February 25, 2010, accessed June 11, 20012, 

  7. Richard Lanham, The Economics of Attention (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), xi-xii. 

  8. Jensen, “Authority 3.0,” 299. 

Image: “Steel”
Original Artist: Boris Artzybasheff
Flickr: x-ray delta one [James Vaughn]
Access Date: 16 January 2013
License: Creative Commons Share Alike