In a piece for Debates in the Digital Humanities, Dan Cohen argues that the social contract between author and reader has not easily translated into the digital world. In this social contract, scholars supply the peer-reviewed, edited, and stylized text, and readers recognize this process by devoting serious attention to the work. Somehow, books have maintained their “aura” as the most fitting repositories for scholarly labor. According to Cohen, writers and readers alike believe books demand more – time? money? space? – and equate these demands with the value of the intellectual content. While I agree that books have maintained their cultural status as the familiar, trusted medium, I question why Cohen cites “demand” as a primary evaluative criteria. Whether in physical or digital form, readers can break the social contract by skimming the text or engaging with the ideas at the surface level. Devices demand physical (and hardware) space on a daily basis just as books remind readers of their weight and size demands with every tug on the shoulder. The question remains: why has the academy remained adverse to online publishing?
Cohen finishes with this thought: “Curation becomes more important than publication once publication ceases to be limited.” Curation denotes a process of selection and presentation of objects and in the case of publication, ideas. The aspect of care, which lies at the heart of curation, returns to the unstated principle underlying the social contract of scholarly publishing – reciprocity. Scholars, editors, and readers alike need to reconfigure the set of cues assuring the respective parties that the exchange of ideas occurs in a mutually beneficial fashion. While the unboundedness of the web complicates this process, importing features of “traditional” academic publishing into the online environment can ease the gap from the “old” to the “new.” Ultimately, online scholarly publishing can and will succeed so long as original ideas get transmitted within trusted, respected environments. To establish these, however, will require assessing assumptions about labor and audience, specifically whether long-codified expectations of scholars suit the current needs of the humanities.