Kyle Mays (Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and managing editor, Native American and Indigenous Studies journal) weighs in on the recent fanfare over Rick Perlstein’s alleged plagiarism.
I know everyone is still reeling from Rick Perlstein’s so-called plagiarism of Craig Shirley in his book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. I won’t repeat that narrative, though you can find it a variety of places (here, here, and here.) It appears that the major issue here is not about plagiarism; rather, it is about access to information and methodology between the public sphere and the academic sphere. I for one think that digital humanities work can also lead to different levels of social transformation, or at the very least help shape the context. As someone committed to bridging both spheres (and for the record, they’re both public!), I have no problem with publishing digitally or placing notes online. Why not? After all, in the digital age, a time filled with instant gratification and social media, having people talk about you can be really good, or really bad—or both. If you’re an academic working in both academic and non-academic spheres—whether people are talking bad about you or not—I’d say it’s best to have people talking.
Publishing as Democratic Practice
The brilliance of publishing digitally is that others outside of the academy have access to information—especially if it is open access. The World Wide Web is a vast land, occupied by a variety of settlers, seeking to control who has access to what information. It is also an adventure. After scrolling through Perlstein’s online footnotes, it is apparent that it can lead to more information. It can be distracting. That is the contradiction of the Internet. The process of online publication helps a reader engage in the practice of a historian, but it can also lay bare the many challenges of historical work. I don’t mind this. The problem, Perlstein notes, is that some links might become dead (a challenge all digital publishers face and haven’t really found an answer for). However, all works have contradictions, are fixed with ideologies, and we shouldn’t put a bound book on a pedestal. At least online you can see the source directly instead of having to go to your local library.
We trained historians might really enjoy mining through those footnotes. But there are those who don’t want to, either. I don’t see Perlstein’s actions as an inconvenience to the reader; it’s just a different method of sharing information and engaging with the audience. Plus, if you’re going to be a public intellectual—perhaps we should say PDI (public digital intellectual)—you need a heavy web presence (i.e., social media, website, etc.). Admittedly, while I looked through the notes, I became intrigued about the person. Questions arose: “Who is this dude?” “What does he do?” “Why publish footnotes online?” “Any upcoming speaking engagements?” Perlstein got me, I suppose. And, as a social/cultural historian myself, someone who still believes that history is made by everyday people, we should also seek to appeal to everyday people, and find new, creative ways to share information, including our method for finding/using sources. If some don’t like his method, at least he opened up another conversation about publishing or self-promotion. You can’t hate on anyone for wanting others to read their work.
The Future of Publishing in the Digital Humanities
I work for an academic journal. We struggle with a variety of issues when it comes to publishing. Can people use this artwork? Is it copyrighted? When does the copyright run out? Was it published in a different form or language? These questions will forever be with any type of publishing. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
With the increase in open access online journals and a variety of other methods to share information including blogging, we historians, humanities scholars—everyone—can no longer gloat in the ability to pontificate amongst ourselves and ignore those outside of the academy. Perhaps the next great author/scholar/academic revolution will be to wrest away our intellectual work from those who want to control how and in what way it is disseminated. Or we continue to serve two masters—the pressures of the academy and trying to reach a broader audience. Instead of worrying about footnotes being online, let’s focus on trying to find new, creative ways to share information in order to make our work relevant to both ourselves and “everyday” people.
Bamaappii (until later),