A Rationale for Digital Critical Editions of Public Domain Print Forms

One of the great (if often undervalued) scholarly achievements of the twentieth century was to re-theorize and adapt the ancient tradition of textual criticism toward the specific end of critically editing print-era texts. I believe that digital publishing bears the institutional burden of carrying this achievement forward into digital environments and should do so primarily by producing open-access, collaborative critical editions of the many pre-1900 print texts that are in the public domain and increasingly available in digital archives like Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and GoogleBooks.

The digital revolution has had an ambivalent effect upon the practice of critical editing. On one hand, digital technologies have enabled a steadily increasing number of the multimedia, hypertextual scholarly editions called for in Jerome McGann’s famous 1997 “Rationale of Hypertext.” Digital technologies (such as Juxta and other collation softwares) have moreover expedited the editorial process even for print form editions. On the other hand, the architecture of the many digital archives now offering scholars and students ready access to a mass of print form documents in the public domain has effectively blinded their users to the questions of textual authority fundamental to the tradition of critical editing that aims to identify, collate, adjudicate, and (crucially) display to readers the variants among different documentary witnesses to the same “work.” For the OCR scans used for digital mark-up in archives like ECCO are unedited at even the basic level of proofreading, yet most such archives hide these error-ridden OCR scans from readers, who instead see only the visually “perfect” PDF images displayed as the results of searches based on those “dirty” OCR scans. Ironically, the digital revolution has thus at once expanded and enriched the tools available to editors and exponentially multiplied the number of works that editors need to prepare for properly critical use by scholars and students.

I propose that the best way for digital publishing to respond to this ironic situation is to publish open-access, collaborative critical editions of the print form texts available in digital archives like ECCO. And let me stress that the kind of critical editions I propose are different from multimedia hypertextual “editions” like the Rossetti Archive and the Blake Archive. For as the name of these “archives” indicates, and as Kathryn Sutherland has cogently argued,[1] such “editions” are in fact more like ECCO than twentieth-century print form critical editions, insofar as these archive-editions effectively refuse to establish a historically and theoretically authoritative and stable text of works, and instead allow each individual user to construct her own text(s). And as Sutherland argues, by thus shifting the editorial function of “establishing” the text onto users/readers, hypertextual archive-editions tend to short-circuit communal interpretive debate about texts, since different users make and interpret different versions of the same work.

This is certainly not to say that hypertextual archives are innately pernicious and should be abandoned. Rather, it is to stress that hypertextual archive-editions have different affordances and functions from properly critical editions that do, on explicit historical and theoretical grounds, make an argument for the authority of a particular text of a work and even (in the case of “eclectic” editing) create a “new” version of the work by judiciously combining readings from different historically extant witnesses to the work.

There are many ways that digital publishing can expedite and facilitate properly critical editions, but because digital publishing facilitates collaborative work in ways that print forms rarely does and also increasingly facilities and legitimate open-access publication (for example by post-publication peer review/crowd-sourcing peer review), I would propose that such editions should be produced by collaboration and published as open-access shared intellectual property. Being the instructor of the course in Textual Editing that Megan Mize earlier posted about on this survey, I obviously believe that one major way to produce digital critical editions is through such courses, which achieve two related ends: they train a new generation of critical editors, and they produce critically valid editions that inform users about the textual history and status of the texts they are reading.

Megan rightly (and by laudable intellectual habit) frets over the validity of editions such as the one our course produced of Hell upon Earth/Memoirs of John Hall. She is right that there were problems in making the explanatory notes consistent in scope and intent within the timespan of a semester. But even if those explanatory notes remain imperfect, as an experienced editor I would say that our edition fully accomplishes the basic task of critical editing as summarized above: to identify, collate, adjudicate, and—again crucially—display to readers the variants among textual witnesses to the work(s) edited. There certainly remain issues to do with the mechanics of peer review and legitimacy. For instance, can I or students in the class include this edition in our CV lists of publication without the * that conventionally delegitimizes them as non-peer reviewed? This and other issues remain to be worked out at an institutional level, but based on my experience of this class, ones like it are a legitimate and useful application of the protocols of critical editing within digital publishing environments. Toward the end of fostering similar courses, the course syllabus and a pedagogic reflection will be (shortly) published along with our edition on the webpage of the PhD program here at ODU.



    I have to agree with the capacity of digital publishing to facilitate “open-access, collaborative critical editions,” thereby allowing scholars access to critically-edited texts which might not otherwise be available.  However, as has been noted, there may be problems with legitimizing digital publications.  You suggest that “post-publication peer review/crowd-sourcing peer review” might be viable options for digital editions.  Shakespeare Quarterly’s success in 2010 using online, collaborative peer-review demonstrates that these tools can be effective.  However, it seems unlikely that Hell upon Earth/Memoirs of John Hall would be capable of generating the same furor of participation as a leading Shakespeare journal.  Moreover, some scholars consider peer-review to be a thankless task—uncompensated, unconsidered by tenure committees.  Will significant institutional changes need to occur in order for digital publication to flourish?  

Anthony makes a keen point that major institutional changes need to happen before the academic world will accept the legitimacy of post-publication review. But I would add the digital critical editions are innately poised to provoke and be on the vanguard of such acceptance simply because critical editions have always been evaluated almost exclusively by post-publication review.

Most scholarly monographs traditionally undergo both pre-publication review and post-publication review in the form of review essays in journals. But critical editions have historically been evaluated only by the latter means. The reason is simple: no one can comprehensively review a critical edition without effectively doing the editorial work themselves. If someone sends me a book manuscript or journal essay and asks me to review it, I can evaluate the logic of its argument, identify lapses or missed opportunities in the sources it cites or methods it uses, and suggest ways to strengthen it, and I can do that in a week or two. If someone sent me the manuscript of a critical edition and asked me to review it with the same degree of comprehensiveness, my only reasonable responses would be: did you fall on your head recently? or, how many decades can you wait? Because it is practically impossible for a single person to review a critical edition, pre-publication review of them has for over a century taken one of two forms: review of a proposal for the edition or group review by an organization such as MLA's Center For Scholarly Editing (CSE), whose review goes only so far as to ensure that the edition includes the fundamental editorial apparati (historical collation, textual notes, etc.) but does not verify the "accuracy" with which those processes have been done, because again verifying "accuracy" would amount to doing the edition over again.

Such pre-publication reviews are valuable and valid, but post-publication review in journals or by users has always been the most comprehensive way of legitimating (or delegitimating) critical editions. In some ways, critical editions have by necessity always been reviewed by "crowd-sourcing" of their users. The proof is in the pudding, in short, and it takes a lot of mouths chewing for a long time to get through and digest the minutiae-thick pudding of a critical edition.

Digital critical editions could greatly expedite, widen, and publicize such crowd-sourcing for example by including comment sections (such as this one) on the edition website. Doing so would supplement vs. replace review essays on critical editions, but since not every edition gets a review essay (i.e., as Anthony notes, Shakespeare more often than Hell upon Earth/Memoirs of John Hall), such "comment wikis" could go a long way toward legitimating editions. 

There will be institutional resistance to valuing such crowd sourcing, since administrators will fret over whether users are "expert" enough to properly evaluate the edition. And there is a danger of letting such comments blur into the kind of reviews on amazon where people trash a cd or complain that the jeans they bought make them look fat. So there are practical problems and institutional arguments to be made before post-publication review will--or should--be accepted. But the traditional authority of critical editions provides a strong example of and argument for the legitimacy of post-publication review. For no one has every seriously thought of refusing to accept the Riverside Shakespeare (or even the classroom edition of W. H. Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard that Manuela Mourao and I published with Broadview Press) as a scholarly publication because it wasn't peer-reviewed before publication.

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