Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ethics and Digital Scholarship

Over the past several days, I've been thinking about the ethics of digital research. This has mainly been sparked by MLA's recent release of revisions to their "Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media"; and I've been looking at the TEI: Text Encoding Initiative, who proposes this on its main page:
The Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) is a consortium which collectively develops and maintains a standard for the representation of texts in digital form. Its chief deliverable is a set of Guidelines which specify encoding methods for machine-readable texts, chiefly in the humanities, social sciences and linguistics.
Both of these groups, then, have sought to establish guidelines for scholarly work in digital media. While this is outwardly in response to the need for evaluation standards, there are also underlying questions of ethics involved. Of course, some of my thinking is also linked to recent US legislative attempts (previously SOPA, now CISPA) that also raise questions of ethics in an electronic age (e.g. internet privacy, censorship, etc.). There are, of course, myriad questions related to ethics (broadly defined) and digital scholarship, and scholars have much to address in this regard (see, e.g., this 2011 article). While there are surely many questions--at least, I have many--I have few (no?) answers.

Still, one question foremost in my mind is about one's personal role in the electronic age. For myself, I've recently been thinking about my interactions with utilizing and/or contributing to digital scholarship--and I find myself much more of a utilizer than a contributor. For example, I use many digital tools, which (as I discussed here) have become a part of my whole life, and central to my scholarship. True, my contributions to scholarship in general are still few, and I am only beginning to position myself within medieval studies and even within the larger fields of humanities and academia. Perhaps my posts on this blog may be considered a small contribution, although I think of them more as musings toward future contributions. I do have some projects in the back of my mind that would be best suited for producing in digital media forms, but even these are most likely a long way off.

But here I find a set of what I consider to be ethical questions for myself: How ethical is it to be mainly a utilizer--essentially, a consumer--of digital tools, and how can this be balanced with genuine contributions? How does one navigate the dual roles of utilization (consumption) and contribution (production)? Again, I find myself with many questions revolving around these issues, but little in the way of answers.


Steve Muhlberger said...

One could worry too much about this. After all, any really good site is likely to have many users who will contribute a lot less than the designer-implementer of the good site. Does that pose an ethical dilemma for the non-contributing users? I say no. The imbalance here is a measure of the designer-implementer's success. There are other ways to contribute than by building digital resources. A teacher who directs students to a good site makes a contribution of unknowable impact. It may help one of them make a major contribution to scholarship years or decades down the line.

Anonymous said...

I think your situation is fine. These projects were all designed to be used, and those that were funded rather than just sweated from some team's collective brow were funded on the basis that people needed them. A countable user is part of these people's basis for funding the next big thing. Besides, the alternative situation, a project that seems like a good idea but which hardly anyone uses, is all too prevalent and an issue of its own in digital scholarship! So I think you can cautiously place yourself on the side if the angels here, or at least of the just.