Citing and Contributing to Digital Resources

How should we cite digital resources in our scholarly work? If we consult a book in EEBO or ECCO, for instance, should we cite the database or the physical book? Does it matter? And what of democratically-constructed resources, like Wikipedia? Should we cite them? Should we contribute?

These questions were raised one sweltering afternoon in the Cultural Connections workshop I attended as part of the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School (DHOxSS2013). Our dozen-strong group heard from a lot of great speakers throughout the week, including Judith Siefring, a project manager within the EEBO-TCP group based in Oxford, and Jonathan Blaney of  the Institute of Historical Research at University College London, where he is a project editor for the British History Online database.

Both Siefring and Blaney explained how difficult it is to trace the impact of online resources. The analytics demonstrate that both projects attract significant numbers of users, but when EEBO and BHO trawl databases of scholarly articles, such as JSTOR, they find their resources are relatively little-cited.

One partial explanation for the low citation-to-traffic ratio is that many scholars use digital resources as proxies for libraries and printed materials. A number of discussants (including yours truly) admitted to citing books they consulted in EEBO as if they had consulted them in hard copy while entirely omitting references to the database.

Our omission of database citations stems from three habits of mind. First, when we cite a text or resource we usually just want to communicate to our reader what part of it we are citing. It isn’t important for our reader to know in what format we consulted the work, right? Wrong. For one thing, most style guides (MLA, MHRA, Chicago and others) clearly indicate that resources consulted online should be cited as such. For another, when we omit to mention digital resources, we conceal their very existence from less experienced scholars.

Second, many of us think of EEBO, ECCO and other online resources as repositories or libraries, rather than databases that add value. We grumble at the expense of EEBO and ECCO, but the reality is that they are costly to create and maintain. Would that we lived in a world that made all such resources free and had infinite funds to maintain them. In order to maintain and improve their services online content providers need to know how often their resources are visited and cited. Whether this will lower their costs (and ours) in the long run is unclear. I won’t hold my breath. But without accurate user-data these resources have a difficult case to make to their parent companies and host institutions about their value, which in turn, I believe, drives up the cost to us.

Third, there is some stigma attached to citing electronic resources. They can be fickle. Who hasn’t been burned by link-rot? Then there are the more pressing questions of whether online resources are accurate, especially democratically-constructed ones, such as Wikipedia. Should we cite them at all?

Most of our group (and probably you too, dear reader) identify with the following statement: ‘I tell my students not to use Wikipedia, but I often use it myself. That said, I would never cite it.’ For many of us, Wikipedia is a springboard for other resources or a quick fact-check tool. It’s as if, by not citing it, we haven’t really used it. This is bogus.

Members of the Cultural Connections strand of the DHOxSS agreed that Wikipedia, though vulnerable to trolls and any number of agenda-laden interest groups, is becoming increasingly sound. This is because, in part, numerous cultural institutions, including the British Library and the US National Archives, have Wikipedians in residence—people who are paid to create and edit Wikipedia articles. This strikes me as one of the best ways for scholars to give back to the general public and internet-users and a good reason to get involved ourselves—if not as paid up Wikipedians, at least as occasional editors.

Speaking of community engagement, I must digress for a moment. Later in the (still sweltering) week I was particularly struck by Peter Kirwan’s enthusiasm for scholarship in the digital dimension, as evidenced by his blog and the statement that: ‘my research has always come out of my public engagement.’ Regarding the thorny but barmy Shakespeare authorship debate (comprised of a plethora of theories which I won’t list here), he said that scholars had really failed to engage with theorists before the internet age, but that the web had made this strategy unworkable. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has tackled the debate head-on with Shakespeare Bites Back by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, a free to download e-book which lays out the case for Shakespeare’s existence and authorship. As Kirwan observed, this is an issue that many people are interested in and it isn’t good enough (or possible) to ignore it. What has long been a source of amusement or irritation for scholars has now become a serious conversation and produced a useful little e-book.

In sum, online resources are not silent proxies for hard copy books. They do add value. Many of them have been keyed in, coded and are regularly maintained. Democratically-constructed cites and projects running on small budgets all need input from interested users, and most of them readily welcome user-feedback and help. Engaging in online fora is not a one-way process. Scholars benefit from their exchanges with other users, particularly on the web. Get citing properly and get involved!

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