Create Change

Shouldn't the way we share research be as advanced as the Internet?

Scholars Speak


Linda Hutcheon
University of Toronto

Linda Hutcheon
Linda Hutcheon

Professor Hutcheon was appointed to the University of Toronto Department of English in 1988, having previously been an associate of the university’s Centre for Comparative Literature since 1980. In 1996 she was named a University Professor, in recognition of her scholarly achievement and pre-eminence in her field. As a literary theorist, her studies of postmodernism have shaped the way many literary scholars and critics see the evolution of Western literature. She is a former president of the Modern Language Association and a prolific writer with more than a dozen books to her credit, including Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions; A Theory of Parody: the Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms and Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. She has also collaborated on three books on the intersection of opera and medicine with her husband, Michael Hutcheon, who is a professor of medicine.

The cultures of the humanities and the sciences are very different, aren't they? Why is this? How are these differences reflected in scholarly communication traditions and practices?

There definitely are cultural differences because the two offer different forms of knowledge. In the humanities, a big part of our mission is to preserve, transmit and interpret the inherited cultural archive. Our job is not to make new discoveries about how nature works. That has an effect on scholarly communication. Our work is not as time sensitive, but on the other hand, it has a greater shelf life, because it becomes part of the archive. That’s why the book is still the important medium. Yet digital scholarship opens up the possibility of self-archiving, a phenomenon that we associate with the sciences. A lot of books go out of print and now you can keep things in print in some form – provided authors have retained the rights to do so. Humanists and social scientists stand to learn a lot by looking outside their fields and thinking beyond their normal print modes of communicating their scholarship.

In your field, what are the biggest areas of debate about sharing information digitally?

There hasn’t been a lot of debate in my field and that is one of the worries. I think it’s mainly because of a lack of knowledge. Scholars are using the Internet to access scholarly materials but they are not using it in many other ways. People know about databases and journals online. They don’t know much about self-archiving. As opposed to publishing, this is a form of open access that allows us to preserve digitally all of our work. Rather than using a personal web site, putting our work in an institutional repository has the advantage of getting us priority on Google and other search engines. It makes our material more accessible and therefore it potentially has more impact. Also, for social reasons, open access is important. When your research is taxpayer-funded it should be easily available to others. With self-archiving, people worry about things like the ease of submission, control once it is posted, and the permanence of it. Many wonder: Why should I bother? But they are missing out, I feel.

Tell us about the “monograph crisis.” How did it come about?

It’s more of a chronic illness than a crisis. For years now, library budgets for books – or “monographs” – have declined as libraries have been forced to shift funds to support the fast-rising cost of journals. As a result, university presses are selling – and therefore publishing – fewer books. In the humanities, we are producing larger amounts of material but our delivery system is not able to sustain it.

What are the implications for promotion and tenure?

University presses are forced into becoming trade publishers and not publishing in-depth studies that we still require to grant tenure. The near-term economics has been winning over long-term scholarship. It’s very hard to get a first book published. Yet the book is still the gold standard for tenure.

What are some of the solutions that have been proposed?

We need to start to rethink tenure. Recently, a statement on the subject came out from the Modern Language Association of America, the largest professional humanities association in the US. It advocates a wholesale rethinking of tenure criteria, in the light of many changes in the academic workplace, including the monograph “crisis.” Many suggestions have been made in many quarters, however, and they range from having candidates for tenure submit their best, say, five pieces of work – thereby moving the stress to quality, not quantity – to rethinking the production of university presses in electronic terms.

How should university presses change?

I think they have a really important role and they need more financial support from their universities. They shouldn’t be competing with the public and trade publishers. They have their own market and should be free to do real scholarly work. They could, however, look into other ways to “publish” – maybe going electronic, as did Rice University Press. In my field, people are willing to search online, but they need to move more into publishing online.

It's been suggested that the Internet revolution has been slow to arrive in humanities scholarship. Is that true?

I think we are catching on: online journals and other resources, especially databases, have become normal – and important. What’s taking longer to catch on is recognizing the legitimacy of new forms of scholarship as well as new forms of publishing. A group recently formed to study 19th century culture – NINES (Network Interface for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship) – has established an integrated publishing environment for peer reviewed online work. They are advocates as well as professional facilitators, because they are showing us the rich potential of electronic media and therefore new ways of conceiving of scholarship. I think we will see more of that in the future.

What is the biggest barrier to change?

Time. People need time to learn new ways of doing scholarship. People are so busy with the day to day that they don’t have time to think about this issue. As new opportunities with open access become more available, more groups will get excited. And the younger generations will teach the older ones.

How are technology and the Internet changing the ways the humanities are taught and how students learn?

The geography of education has changed. Instead of going to the library, students can access material from anywhere. But we have to teach them how to interpret the value of what they find online. Some think it all has the same value. It obviously does not, and so we also have to deal with the issue of plagiarism, which has increased immensely.

How have communication technologies changed the way you work?

I travel less. I don’t have to visit archives physically, so to speak, so research is easier. And so much more is also easily available. To give you an example, I’ve been involved in large project that never could have happened a few years ago: I was one of 300 people involved in rewriting the literary history of Latin America. We were in all different locations around the world. We couldn’t have done this project without both online archives and electronic communication. New things have become possible with databases and dictionaries; important works such as the Dictionary of Old English now are digitalized and the entire Old English corpus of texts is now available.

What is the value – to the humanities and to society – of more open scholarly communication?

Open access removes barriers. I find this very politically attractive. The sharing of knowledge it allows helps us get at economic inequities – experienced both by smaller academic institutions and, of course, by developing countries. Everybody wins. More access and resource sharing lead to a democratized diffusion of knowledge.

What traditions in the humanities would you like to see change to improve scholarly communication?

The scholarly function performed by the monograph is crucial in the humanities. But we have to rethink how it is “published.” As the NINES group and others recognize, we need new models. Why should we be limited to the book form? Why stick to print? There are multimedia and other options now. Let’s move on.