The promises and pitfalls of digital scholarship
Apr 9, 2012
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
“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
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
“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