Academic Publishing and the Digital Age

November 5, 2007 at 6:31 pm (Dissertation, Economics, Education, Languages)

I’m currently participating (mostly as an observer) in a workshop here at UCLA sponsored by the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, discussing the “future of cuneiform scholarship,” specifically digital scholarship. One of the key questions to which conversation keeps returning is that of models for electronic research projects, of which there are two types, as one of the participants astutely pointed out: Models for acquiring funding or another form of support to ensure the endurance of the project, and models for ensuring participation and support within the academic community. The former I will perhaps deal with at another time, but the debate about the latter has been so vigorous and fascinating that I feel compelled to note down some of my comments here (for Bryan’s benefit, more than anyone else, since I think he’s my only reader who will find this at all interesting!).

Assyriology is fundamentally a field of primary sources. Everyone who knows me thinks of it as a field of learning dead languages, but that’s really only the cost of entry: We learn Akkadian and Sumerian in order to translate the primary historical sources of Mesopotamia, cuneiform texts, into modern languages, and then we use those translations to arrive at an understanding of ancient history. Now, either of those two activities is worthy of academic credit in our field; we have scholars who focus on editions and commentaries of particular texts, and we have scholars who focus on developing historical models from edited texts, and scholars everywhere in between. However, there is a step on the way to producing a translation of a text, namely the production of a transliteration of the text, that has rather suddenly stepped out into the spotlight as an area of contention between the various scholars here at the workshop.

A transliteration is the transformation of the cuneiform symbols, which are essentially meaningless to non-Assyriologists, into their phonetic equivalents in the Latin alphabet, which are still essentially meaningless to non-Assyriologists, but at least they can be read by anyone who knows the Latin alphabet, and for most scholars, it is much easier to work from a transliteration than from the original cuneiform. Now, it is the case that, since cuneiform is a polyvalent writing system (the various cuneiform signs can have multiple meanings), a transliteration is indeed already a personal interpretation of the clay tablet, and therefore a work of scholarship. However, as a general rule, these transliterations are traditionally not published on their own; they have been given value by the academic community in terms of publishing and tenure only as a part of a larger edition of the tablet or a historical study which includes commentary on the tablet. Therefore, scholars have tended to hoard their transliterations, since they do require work on the scholars’ part, but the scholar only receives a return on their investment by mining the tablet for information, and that process often requires multiple tablets and years of research.

This situation has changed dramatically during the last ten years with the explosion of personal computers and cheap databases. The value of transliterations has skyrocketed because, in a digital format, they can then be searched. Since we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of tablets, the ability to search quickly for text strings and to otherwise mark-up the texts opens up powerful new vistas of exploration, including a much more complete grasp of the data than ever before. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, scholars still only receive a return on their transliteration investment via editions and commentaries, and therefore are loathe to release their transliteration files to the public. Museums and universities are also not completely on board with the idea of open access, either, since (a) the curators are often drawn from the pool of Assyriologists, and (b) in this funding crisis, many of them are looking for ways of profiting off their collections besides charging admission, and giving away their content for free would disrupt that.

The CDLI, of course, is very much in favor of publishing transliterations, since it is one of the major online databases of cuneiform texts. So, much of the discussion at this workshop has revolved around how to change the “rules” of academia in order to create value simply for the publication of transliterations. This debate is interesting for non-Assyriologists, I think, because it is intimately related to the question of how scholars are rewarded for digital work, or work that doesn’t fit with current understandings of “scholarship.” As it stands, the quantity of “scholarship” produced is the primary factor for many tenure committees, which makes “scholarship,” however it is defined, the currency of the realm. Is it enough for a tenure committee to receive a “letter of support” from a project director for a colleague at another university, describing the value in the specific field of the work that that scholar contributed to the project, if the community of scholars in that field (or some viable subset thereof) agree that such efforts are intrinsically valuable? Will that really fly? After all, as long as the transliterations are more valuable to individuals in secret than in public (and they are now tremendously valuable in public only to the group, not to the individual), scholars will continue to keep them out of the light.

Unfortunately, this workshop did not come up with any concrete answers, only “action items,” as such events often seem to do.  However, it is my hope that our work of the next year will go a long way towards finding those answers, at least for the above question.

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