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The promises and pitfalls of digital scholarship

The digital communication revolution has created many new ways for scholars to communicate with one another. But it is also creating problems, including a deluge of data, rising expenses for libraries, and confusion for scholars.

The UTSC community hashed out some of the promises and pitfalls of digital scholarship at an April 4 forum called Knowledge: Production & Dissemination in the Digital Age. It was organized by Leslie Chan, senior lecturer in the department of social sciences, and Sarah Forbes, scholarly communications librarian.

“There’s no better time for an event like the one we’re having this afternoon,” said Rick Halpern, dean and vice-principal (academic) at UTSC. “Decisions that are being made today will have huge repercussions for scholars and for the public interest for years to come.”

Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an association of research and academic libraries, gave the keynote talk, outlining the main issues digital advances raise for universities.

Despite the relative ease of publishing information electronically, libraries are actually being forced to spend more money every year for access to electronic journals. This is partly because more journals are being published, but it’s also because publishers are increasing prices for access to their journals.

Not only are journals expensive for universities, but the high price tag puts articles out of reach for the general public and researchers from developing countries. Licensing restrictions and high prices also make it difficult to apply computational tools to the literature that would allow published information to be searched and re-analyzed.

“We’re still operating with copyright from a paper-based world,” Joseph said. “It made sense in a paper-based world. But it needs to be updated.”.

But she said that advances are being made in “open access” journals, which make their content freely available at no charge, often electronically. There are about 7,600 open access journals now, compared to a few dozen only 10 years ago.

A remaining problem is that some scholars and peer review committees still need to be convinced that open access journals are just as rigorous and respectable as traditional paper journals, Joseph said.

She also suggested that universities should place more emphasis on maintaining public repositories for papers published by their own faculty. U of T, for instance, has a repository called T-Space, in which faculty are encouraged to keep their published research, which is then made freely available to anyone who wants to see it.

For the scholar who wants to use digital technology to actually conduct research there are other problems and opportunities. Biology student Devin Bloom talked about his experience using Facebook to recruit other ichthyologists to help identify thousands of fish he collected in Guyana. And Caroline Tucker, another biology graduate student, talked about the increased scholarly collaboration made possible by blogs and other social media tools.

Frances Garrett, associate professor of Tibetan & Buddhist Studies, outlined a number of projects she has spearheaded that used electronic tools to actually conduct scholarship – for instance, putting oral histories online, or mapping the location of Buddhist sites in the GTA. But she said that it’s important for institutions to provide the technology and training to help faculty and students, rather than require them to figure it out themselves.

“It is a remarkable time to be involved in digital scholarship,” said Malcolm Campbell, UTSC vice-principal, research. “It’s a remarkable trajectory we're on. I look at digital technology and I can't help but think of microbial growth. We're really in that logarithmic phase of growth when it comes to digital scholarship.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough