Vol. VIII, No. 4

February, 1996

Scholarship and Electronic Data

by H. Eiteljorg, II

The computer workshops at the AIA annual meeting were well attended again this year, and the session dealing with electronic publication was especially lively.

Scholars were eager to discuss the pros and cons of publishing electronically. There were, as one would expect in such a fast-changing area, more questions than answers, but the questions and discussion were illuminating.

The most interesting discussions centered around the problems with scholarly uses of the Internet, not the problems of making material available but those of finding, using, citing, and relying upon the material on the net. So much is made available in preliminary reports or in otherwise impermanent forms that, as one scholar put it, every electronic reference must be re-checked at the last minute for accuracy. Even then, the references may become obsolete or inaccurate at any time. How, then, can traditional scholarship be accomplished if the citations are not reliable?

There is, of course, no simple answer to this question. There is no way to be certain that something read on the World Wide Web today will be there tomorrow - or that the document will be the same tomorrow. Nor is there any guarantee that the same document, if available, will be found at the same address. The ease with which documents may be made available on the Web promotes quick publication, but it also promotes frequent alterations and replacements. Similarly, the frequent changes of computer configurations at academic institutions often necessitate changes in computer addresses for access, rendering citations useless.

One aid for those who use information from the Internet is careful labeling of the material published. That can be done for a group of items, articles in an electronic journal, for instance, or for individual items placed on the Web or made available through the Internet. Whether individually or in groups, preliminary reports should be labeled as such; so should final reports. Indeed, much fuller labeling is required. We should indicate whether a document is expected to be revised in the future, whether it has been subjected to peer review, and how it is maintained. Other information would be desirable as well, and a range of such information about any document can and should be made available along with the document itself. Images used with the document(s) should be similarly treated. Here is a suggested list of such information. I hope that readers will respond with further suggestions and comments.

To test these categories, I have considered what should be known by users of two documents made available by CSA, the CAD model of the older propylon from the Athenian Acropolis (files to be downloaded, not directly accessible throught the Web) and my description of the CSA Layer Naming Convention. The following should be known about the CAD model:

* * * * *

The following should be known about the CSA Layer Naming Convention:

* * * * *

For the CAD model, which scholars may wish to use at any time, it is crucial to know about archival storage. The model is a part of the data record and should remain so. This is the case for any data that is made available in electronic form, including CD-ROMs, since all such data files have finite shelf lives. Where will the original be kept and how?

For the document concerning layer naming, which is a practical aid but contains no irreplaceable data, the history of its many revisions may be of interest to someone studying the development of the application of CAD to archaeology. Otherwise, it is not the kind of document many scholars will wish to access when its practical utility has ended.

Attempting to write this article has helped me to consider carefully the kinds of information that should be available, and adding examples helped yet more. But I hope that reader reaction will lead to more and better categories of information. Meanwhile, as many rush to add information to the electronic corpus, we users must insist upon the kinds of information discussed here. We need standards concerning the supporting information, but we cannot wait for standards to be developed by others. Nor can we stand by without complaint if materials are made available without adequate supporting information.

For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.

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