Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, April 17, 2014

on documentation

This essay on scholarly documentation practices lays down some very useful principles — for some scholars working in some circumstances. Unfortunately, the author, Patrick Dunleavy, assumes a situation that doesn't yet exist and may not for some time to come.

Dunleavy presents as normative, indeed nearly universal, a situation in which (a) scholarly publication is natively digital because we live in “the digital age” and (b) scholars are working with open-access or public-domain sources that are readily available online. When those two conditions hold, his recommendations are excellent. But they don’t always hold, and what he calls “legacy” documentation is in fact not a legacy condition for many of us, but rather necessary and normal.

For instance: Dunleavy says of page-number citations, "That is legacy referencing, designed solely to serve the interests of commercial publishers, and 90% irrelevant now to the scholarly enterprise." I don't yet have any data about my recent biography of the Book of Common Prayer — see, and use, the links on the right of this page, please — but for my previous book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, codex sales have exceeded digital sales by a factor of 10. So my 90/10 split is the opposite of what Dunleavy asserts to be the case. It makes no sense for me to think of the overwhelming majority of my readers as inhabiting a “legacy” realm and to focus my attention on documenting for the other ten percent. Page numbers are still eminently relevant to me and my readers. Dunleavy claims that “pagination in the digital age makes no sense at all,” which may be true, if and when we get to “the digital age.”

Moreover, most of my scholarly work is on figures — currently W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and Jacques Maritain — whose work is still largely or wholly under copyright. So I have few open-access or public-domain options for citing them. And this, too, is a common situation for scholars.

Dunleavy is thus laying down supposedly universal principles that in fact apply only to some scholars in some disciplines. Which is why this tweet from Yoni Appelbaum is so apropos:


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