As the scholarly world moves increasingly into a new era of digital humanities, it takes on new challenges, issues, and questions. New forms of increased digital connectedness usher in “openness” at a maximum by increasing accessibility for gaining new knowledge, but also for forming knowledge. In open access areas such as the vast web, anyone can speak and anyone can “publish”. On the one hand, this provides opportunities for so many informed individuals out there who have not had the chance to be affiliated and published through institutions of higher learning (which can be quite exclusive and long-term). However, this also creates the problem of credibility. How do we know that this work is legitimate if it has been “published” by someone who has not even undergone credentialing through the hands of some credible institution?
Meanings of what the word “publishing” is and what it speaks of have undergone a great change in recent years. Burdick et. al state, “To publish” is to make something public, to place it within a sphere for broad scrutiny, critical engagement, and community debate” (86). When thinking of publishing, we normally envision a book being printed out and picked up by groups of people interested in a certain genre or field. However, in the digital world such “publishing” would be through the web, not in paper, and the “public” the work is being distributed to would be exponentially larger. Accessibility to the larger public is at an all time high, making it so that almost anyone can “publish” anything.
The breakdown of the rigid lines between who the author is and who the reader is has been blurred, and the bar to enter the publishing world of the web is extremely low, allowing almost anyone to act as an author regardless of the status of their credentials. Blog posts from mothers are so popular nowadays that if one Googles anything about problems their young children are going through, they even beat websites that provide actual medical advice on the way up to the top of the searches. The opportunity to “publish” in this new way though can give opportunities for so many out there. A quick example of this can be Anna Todd’s “After” series that started out as a Harry Styles fanfiction on an open-to-all site called Wattpad. The digital book series was a massive hit on the site/app, raking in well over 100 million views. The books were even published in print, have become bestsellers, and have even been turned into movies. This success story epitomizes the potential of open authorship.
Despite all of its potential for greatness though, open authorship can be quite dangerous, especially as it breaches upon subjects covered in academic scholarship. When anyone can write anything on the internet and pose it as a researched fact, misinformation and lies can be spread in a rampant manner, and can actually be believed by others, causing many complications. For decades, institutions of higher education have acted as the hands that ensure the credibility of not only the authors but also of the work that has been published. Institutions only publish and promote works that have been authored by well-decorated (and learned) professionals that have been vetted out, and have been peer-reviewed by equally competent professionals. In doing so, they ensure legitimacy but become extremely exclusive, allowing opportunities to only a certain few.
For decades, knowledge credentialing has been controlled solely by institutions of higher learning, and they have taken monopoly of knowledge production. However, as Digital Humanities (and almost every other field of scholarship) is entering the digital world, it is experiencing vast changes that it never had to deal with before. In an age where the aforementioned monopoly is only decreasing, how can legitimacy be improved? The problem is extremely large-scale and seemingly neverending. However, I believe some of the power lies in us readers and writers of scholarship. In an age where misinformation persists, it is our job to be responsible readers and authors, and equip others with the knowledge to also bear that responsibility.
Written by Shukirti Khadka, Gettysburg College Class of 2024, and part of the DSSF 2021 Cohort.