The Future of Scholarship: Easier, Harder, and With More Charlatans

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The shift from paper to the tools of a simple laptop has brought about a new age of research, and it's mostly good news for readers and writers alike.

414217385_d9f4f17d70_z-615.jpg Einstein's desk compared with a more modern one. (AP/James and Winnie via Flickr)

With the academic year now safely concluded, I have the summer months to pursue a writer's life. I've signed on to write a "biography" of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer for this Princeton University Press series, and right now I'm about 30,000 words in. Lately, when I sit down in the morning to get started on my labors for the day, I've found myself thinking about how the work of writing has changed for me since I wrote my first book, some fifteen years ago. I was using an Apple laptop then -- a PowerBook 100, which I had bought at about the time it was discontinued and then used for five or six years -- and I'm using an Apple laptop now. I relied on a range of scholarly, critical, and literary sources then, and I do so now. But at this point the similarities pretty much end. And the new world of research may be taking us down some highly promising paths.

Fifteen years ago my laptop was surrounded by books, some of which I owned, some I had checked out from my college's library or from the local public library, some I had ordered from other libraries. And then there were the photocopied articles, so many that I had organized them roughly by subject and gathered them into three-ring binders. So my large desk was covered with open books and binders, overlapping, stacked, some propped open by others. Maybe one corner of the laptop would be used to hold a book open, at the cost of an unstable keyboard. If the laptop was plugged into the college network, I might have had Pine open for email -- though I didn't get many emails -- and telnet for checking library catalogs. Other than that, it was MS Word 5.1 all the time.

Now I still have books around, but in far smaller stacks, and no photocopies at all. Instead, I have thirty or more browser tabs open, containing articles from JSTOR or Project Muse, full-length texts on Google Books and Project Gutenberg, Amazon.com pages containing all the notes I've made in the Kindle books I've used for research, plus a number of "Look Inside!" pages from Amazon. I even have Amazon pages open for books sitting on my desk. There's no Kindle edition of Diarmaid MacCulloch's magisterial biography of Thomas Cranmer, but if I'm looking for a particular passage in it, looking through my underlined and annotated paper copy is just too slow: I type a keyword or two into the "Look Inside" search box and get the relevant page number instantly. Often I type in a quotation from the webpage instead of from the book because it's faster and easier than trying to find a way to prop the book open. Probably half of the sources I draw on in my research are still from print, but I spend 80 percent or more of my working time looking at my laptop screen. I still use a lot of books, but I spend less and less time in them, and more and more time with digital text (even when I have hard copies of the books).

(Oh, and instead of using MS Word or any other word processor I write in a text editor using Markdown syntax. Everything I write is in plain text until I'm ready to send it to the publisher, at which point I reluctantly open a word processing app.)

So how do these changes matter? How do they affect the work of writing, and how we think about the work of writing? I think there are three major ways.

1) They make research -- and getting the research into my documents -- much easier and faster. Obviously.

2) They make it less defensible to cut corners. If I read in a modern book or article a quotation from an old book or article, chances are I can find that original source online: if it's a book, it's likely to be in Google Books or some other site, and if it's an article, the digital archives of periodicals are increasingly complete. There's really no good excuse for failing to track down that original source to make sure it hasn't been quoted inaccurately or out of context, and to see if it contains other useful material.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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