WWP The Project Newsletter Volume 4, Number 2

Scholarly Research and Electronic Resources

Julia Flanders, Project Manager

Many readers of this newsletter are already aware that the Women Writers Project recently conducted a survey on scholarly research and electronic text use in the humanities, part of our Renaissance Women Online initiative funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The survey was conducted last fall, and since then we have been transcribing the results and preparing them for analysis. Although final statistical results will not be available until somewhat later, some very interesting qualitative results have emerged in the responses.

Survey Design and Aims

The survey was sent to 330 people, all of whom were prior users of WWP text printouts. This group was chosen not at random, but with the aim of representing a range of geographic locations, degrees of access to online technology, and professional positions -- the latter largely academic, but also including a sample of librarians and independent scholars. Our response rate was better than expected; we were told not to hope for more than about 10%, but in fact we received 69 responses, or 21%.

Our aims for the survey were two-fold. First, we wanted to judge the practical economic impact of electronic texts on academic research, and test hypotheses about the long-term costs of using rare texts in research and teaching, as compared to the use of primary source textbases such as the WWP's. To this end, we wanted to collect some concrete data on the kinds of costs researchers incur when using rare texts (above all, travel), and the sources of funding that typically support such research.

Our second, broader aim was to understand the range of attitudes and concerns that academics currently feel towards the use of electronic resources, as compared with other forms of textual material. Such knowledge, we felt, could provide important insight both into the way electronic resources are likely to be adopted in research and teaching, and into the needs that such resources must serve in order to become a useful and habitual part of scholarly life.

To elicit the more specific data on costs, we designed a set of detailed questions with multiple-choice answers to limit variation and ensure consistency among responses. For the broader questions about attitudes and text usage, however, our approach was necessarily more complex. We wanted to guide or limit the responses as little as possible, to capture the full range of respondents' opinions. For this reason, these sections of the survey asked for open-ended comments, inviting the respondents to speak as frankly and fully as possible.

This approach to survey design has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages, as stated above, are that one does not artificially limit what can be said in response to the survey by anticipating a certain range of responses and foreclosing others. However, open-ended questions make it more difficult to derive quantifiable conclusions from the data. To overcome this problem, we created a set of codes that represented the specific themes and issues that we wanted to track in the responses. Each response could then be coded to indicate which themes were present, thus providing a way of identifying patterns and expressing conclusions more precisely.

Themes and Patterns

The themes that emerged from the survey responses illustrated a range of concerns and insights, and threw a particularly interesting light on the role of scholarly involvement in the growing digital realm.

Access

Interest in issues of access was apparent throughout the survey responses. However, respondents used the term with a range of meanings that deserved closer attention. The domain of the word "access", first of all, seems to split between the idea of gaining access to specific materials, and the broader notion of making materials generally easier to use. In the former category, rare texts and non-canonical texts were of paramount interest. Scholars indicated that one of their chief reasons for using an online textbase would be to increase their access to materials that are difficult to find in print form for teaching and research. The concept of access here engages with the boundaries that physical scarcity, cultural positioning, and fragility have placed around these texts -- issues that affect women's writing to a disproportionate extent. In its broader frame of reference, on the other hand, the term "access" (or "accessibility") expresses a desire that textual materials of all sorts be made available in more useful forms. For student use, this could mean providing a modern-spelling version, or including annotations or glossaries; for research purposes, it could mean the ability to view color images of manuscripts which reveal invisible details, or the ability to compare variant editions of the text.

Access, in the survey responses, had additional connotations as well. For some, it was tied to democratizing the use of rare texts: reducing costs and removing obstacles for students and researchers of limited means, and opening up access to these materials to a much broader audience. Others raised technological issues, noting the increased importance of a networked environment for research and the growing ability to work with textual materials from home, office, or while travelling. Finally, networked access raised the issue of the "accessibility" of digital resources in the sense of their user interface and functionality.

Accuracy and Reliability

While the trustworthiness of the text would seem to be of self-evident importance, what was less predictable was the particular forms that concern for accuracy took in the survey results. Anxiety about the accuracy of electronic texts was so acute that some respondents discussed it even in answer to questions on other subjects, and it clearly represented the single largest obstacle to general scholarly use of electronic texts.

Having said this, however, several other points of interest should be noted. First, concern over the accuracy and reliability of electronic texts was much greater in scholars' discussion of their research work than in their teaching. Very few respondents cited concern for inaccuracy as a reason for not using electronic texts in their classrooms, whereas a far greater number said that they would either not use electronic texts in their research, or that they would use them only where they could also check them against the originals.

Second, survey respondents expressed two quite different kinds of distrust of electronic texts. The first was an essentially pragmatic sense that currently available texts are not yet being produced to scholarly standards: an opinion based on observation and use of these materials. Respondents in this category seemed able to imagine the possibility of reliable, accurate electronic texts becoming available in the future, and to imagine using them when they did. Alongside this group, however, was another that tended to express concerns about the fundamental nature of electronic texts. Respondents in this group tended to speak of a gut-level sense of the "book-ness" of books and their aesthetic qualities ("aesthetic" here meaning the physical and cultural properties of the book form as well as its attractiveness) -- these issues affecting the perceived trustworthiness of the electronic text and its cultural positioning rather than its actual transcriptional accuracy. Concerns of this nature seem more likely to persist even if electronic texts do become a standard and reliable form of scholarly resource. Scholars often attributed these reservations to the nature of their scholarly training, giving these concerns an intrinsically greater durability than the more pragmatic worries described above.

Another frequently cited issue of textual reliability was the question of editorial integrity, including both the textual choices made (choice of edition, editorial treatment) and the scholarly credentials of the editors involved. Most frequently, scholars noted that these choices are not sufficiently foregrounded in most electronic texts, leaving the reader with no sense of what sort of text he or she is using.

Interestingly, no mention was made of the accuracy or integrity of the encoding or electronic preparation of the text. From this it appears that scholars are not yet aware of the kinds of specific choices that go into the preparation of an electronic edition, and the effects these may have on its quality -- both as scholarship and as a digital product.

The Role of the Scholar

Closely tied to the question of editorial integrity above is the role of the scholar in the preparation of electronic texts, and how that role is imagined and evaluated. Concerns about the trustworthiness of the text were quite often framed in terms of a desire for a recognized name and the authority it carries, as a way of assessing the value of a given edition. The lack of such authorities was cited by some as a crucial difference between the cultures of electronic and print media.

Even more prominent in the survey responses, though, was an engagement with the issue of scholarly intervention and its role in the creation of textual resources. A significant number of respondents said that they valued the electronic medium particularly where it offered easy access to an unedited, unmediated version of the text from which they could draw their own conclusions. However, a significant number also said, on the other hand, that they valued the input of a scholarly mind, and preferred to use texts edited by a trusted expert rather than the original source.

These are issues that arise with equal potency in the realm of print texts, but in the context of the electronic medium they take on a peculiar force, since they affect the adoption of the medium as a space for scholarly research. The role of the scholar is particularly important because as yet few scholars are actually involved in the creation of electronic texts. This is both the cause and the effect of the current institutional positioning of work in the new medium: professional assessment does not yet give much (if any) credit for the preparation of electronic resources, and scholarly publication still has a sense of awkwardness about the citation of electronic materials. As a result they remain peripheral to the mainstream of academic work.

Looking to the Future

One of the most exciting results of the survey was its detailed picture of current uses of electronic texts by humanities scholars. Despite the concerns expressed in many of the surveys, over half the respondents said they used electronic texts in their teaching or research, and nearly 60% described specific plans for future use. Some described using texts for student online editing projects; some said they wanted to teach their students textual analysis skills; some described using online resources to find and analyze materials for their own research. A large proportion expressed a strong wish for online access to rare or non-canonical texts.

Over the next few months, online access to the WWP textbase will increase steadily, with improving facilities for searching and analysis. If you would like to join our beta-test program, for personal research or for classroom use, please contact us at 401-863-3619 or WWP@brown.edu.

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