Review of the ACLS Cyberinfrastructure Report

This report poses an important challenge to the non-profit publishing community, forcing us to consider and explain our role in an increasingly digital culture. The report is nominally a survey of the changing information landscape in the humanities and social sciences, and a proposal for building a new technological infrastructure. But for anyone trying to negotiate between the worlds of print and digital culture, the report's pastiche of techno-optimism, open-access rhetoric, and general indifference to the interests of non-profit publishers will be a bitter pill.

In broad terms, the report offers a "vision" that connects the best developments of the past to the brightest opportunities for the future; a list of "constraints" impeding progress; and a set of recommendations to advance toward that goal. At the level of vision, the report lays out a compelling argument for a vast digital warehouse of information, freely searchable by the public and open to a plethora of new tools for scholars. Unfortunately, the commission goes on to develop its analysis by flattening qualitative distinctions in the "digital information" being produced (as "quantity can become quality"), and erasing the contribution of non-profit publishers to the system of scholarly communication.

To make its case, the commission simply ignores skeptics who ask whether the rush to mass digitization could hurt reading and scholarship, and whether there might be other casualties on this road to progress. This offers a rather narrow view of the "grand challenges" facing the humanities and social sciences, and limits the array of problems that might be remedied by a developed cyberinfrastructure. This seems part of a larger rhetorical strategy in the report, however, which positions potential problems and the costs of digitization as external to its vision of technological progress—limiting them to social, political, or financial failures that can be assigned to publishers and "conservative" academics.

I was particularly troubled at the way the report touches only superficially on the mundane costs arising from the ephemeral nature of the technology, and then largely ignores them when it comes time to offer solutions. Almost every digital project I have been involved with over the past ten years seemed to require starting back at the beginning of a new learning curve, and struggling to see all the necessary choices and consequences. Even after the learning phase was over, these projects never seem to reach closure. Like Jacob Marley's chains, link-by-link we forge these digital burdens that we can never seem to lay down. The information has to be updated, links fixed, and the technological containers for the data regularly refreshed. The commission never really explores how this makes our choices in this arena more costly, more transitory, and the price of failure higher.

To the contrary, the report offers a rather fanciful lesson in the economics of scholarly publishing that makes first-copy costs and sustainability disappear into a fog of "public goods" and "collective action." The resulting picture should really trouble non-profit publishers, as the commission rather blithely erases our role in the system of scholarly communication along with the costs we have to recover. As a result, we seem to be re-cast as an unnecessary impediment to the development of a cyberinfrastructure. When the commission then calls on us to engage with other parties (librarians and university administrators) about these issues, it just seem to be inviting us into a dialogue about the arrangements for our own funerals.

While scholarly communication could undoubtedly be improved by an infusion of funds from the federal government and others, the report undercuts that possibility by being so vague about the actual costs and leaves little room for more modest, incremental alternatives. After framing the issues in terms of large needs and expensive remedies, the commission's only alternative to federal support is to encourage "experimentation with new forms of cooperation between the private sector and cultural institutions." So much for the public good, apparently.

Naïvely perhaps, I continue to think the non-profit publishing community can play a vital and positive role in building up the cyberinfrastructure. We can still stand for a position of cautious optimism that upholds standards of scholarship and quality, explores and adapts to new technologies, and maintains a realistic view of the costs and the benefits of the technology. Hopefully, when the public money fails to arrive and the commission members discover the strings attached by their private benefactors, the non-profit publishers will still be here to muddle along, doing the best we can with what we have.

American Council of Learned Societies. "Our Cultural Commonwealth: The final report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities & Social Sciences" (2006); available online at http://www.acls.org/cyberinfrastructure/.

Robert B. Townsend
Assistant Director for Research and Publications, American Historical Association