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

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.

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, 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.

3) They make it easier to fake erudition. It has never been nearly so easy to give yourself the appearance of learning you do not really have. Though I still have to -- or rather, get to! -- travel to archives to study unique documents, anywhere I have an internet connection I also have access to a vast range of materials that once were available only to people who used the largest libraries in the world. A wide range of sites help me with translations of texts written in languages that I don't know well or don't know at all: if I have even minimal knowledge of a language I can easily cite a source in the original language, from an authoritative text, which would make me seen a hell of a lot more scholarly than I am. (Not that I would ever do something like that.) Instead of citing one source for a given idea I can cite five. If I have gotten information from a commonly-used source I can often track down a much older and more obscure citation for it.

All this may be significant for the future of writing based on published-source research. For a very long time, certain kinds of scholarly and intellectual work could be done only by a handful of people, people with regular access to great libraries and the time to spend sifting through them. The value of their work stemmed in part from the scarcity of both resources and opportunities. In some cases, scholars who didn't make very good arguments or write very clearly still because widely respected because of the heavy lifting they had done in libraries and archives.

It's at least possible that in this new knowledge environment we'll be able to take more of the research as a given -- not all of it, but more of it -- and will demand from researchers some of the literary virtues: lucidity of style, subtlety of argument, liveliness of narrative. Maybe when readers will make it clear that they know how easy it is to multiply sources, writers will cease to try to impress through numbers of footnotes.

George Augustus Auden with his sons, with W.H. at the far left. (Family Ghosts)

And maybe, for those born researchers, the lure of the archive will become stronger. Last year, when I was doing some research on the poet W. H. Auden at the magnificent Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, I was given the chance to look through some uncatalogued materials. There I found a series of letters Auden's father, George Augustus Auden, had written when he was serving as an British Army doctor in World War I, at Gallipoli. It was fascinating to see how this middle-aged doctor was transformed into a fighting man, came to identify over time more and more with the soldiers. I found myself wanting to put aside what I was working on and write something about the remarkable Dr. Auden. I forced myself to overcome the temptation, but those letters are still there at the Berg Collection, waiting for me or some other researcher to show up, study them, make sense of them, tell the world about them. And there is far, far more such fascinating but unpublished material in the world's libraries and archives than most people suspect.

So when I think about the future of research in a thoroughly connected age, what I see, primarily, is opportunity. If scholars are encouraged to write more clearly, to find better stories to tell, to stop showing off, to dig deeper into unpublished material, then readers and writers alike have some good times ahead.