Digital Scholarly Integrity

I recently received a phone call from an attorney — a piece she had published some time ago had an embarrassing mistake in its title. Needless to say, she was looking for a new position at the time and was concerned that a prospective employer would see the title and send her application to the circular file. While I was less worried than she that due diligence by employers extended this far, I too would have stewed at such a mistake hanging over my head forever.

Not to worry. While the published version will continue to exist (and embarrass) in wherever inaccessible and unaccessed places it now resides, the digital versions in Lexis and Westlaw have been corrected.

It would be hard to quibble with the correction in question — truly a typographical error — and both Lexis and Westlaw required authorization from the journal in question. Neither responded just to the importuning of the author of the piece.

But it made me wonder about both the security of our digital scholarship and the scholarly ethics of making changes, at least more substantive changes than this.

As to digital integrity, law reviews are increasingly not read in their traditional form, and many libraries are not even carrying many journals they previously stocked. Lexis and Westlaw have become the gold standard — and I am excluding SSRN intentionally. There is often a substantial difference between the version(s) of a piece posted on SSRN and the published article, making it dangerous to rely too heavily on the SSRN version. Indeed, one of my colleagues spent some time responding to a SSRN piece only to discover that the printed version had removed the offending section.

Thus, what Lexis and Westlaw reproduce is, for all practical purposes, what we write, and the extent to which the two databases honor requests for changes by journals and/or authors raises some interesting questions — ones to which I do not have an answer. While few would object to correction of typographical errors (a recent article I saw included “insert emdash” in the text, twice), what is a typo and what is a substantive change can obviously be a close call. Further, there is obviously value to freezing scholarly output — warts and all. But making some changes is not only important to avoid author (or journal or home institution) embarrassment, but might also be critical when a problem reaches the level of libel or plagiarism. So one issue is the precise policies of Lexis and Westlaw and the extent to which the scholarly community is comfortable with them.

Then there is the scholarly ethics question. Assuming the databases will allow a given change, what kinds of changes do we think are in bounds, and when? Although I am probably the only one who has noticed most of the gaffes in my past work, there are a fair number of things I would like to change — if I could. History is said to be written by the winners, but it might be rewritten by those with the incentive to do so.

You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. Jim Milles says:

    One fairly small point: I would consider Hein Online, not Westlaw or Lexis, the current gold standard for digital law journals, especially now that many journals are eliminating the two-year lag time that they initially required.

    A larger point: you are referring to the problem of versioning, which is far from resolved, but there are certainly librarians, information scientists, archivists, and other scholars who are taking this question very seriously and trying to develop standards.

  2. Frank says:

    As for the question of “revising oneself;” many online sites (like Slate) and blogs now have a “strikethrough” feature, which lets you edit old work by putting a line through the offending passage and putting new content after it.

    I think wiki technology will soon make this a little more manageable. A wiki-page can keep track of all revisions, dates of revisions, revisers, etc. I hope sometime this fall to turn one of my pieces on Google into a wiki, so it can be continually updated.

    By the way, for an example of a book that’s entirely open for revision after comments, this is an interesting project started at the Institute for the Future of the Book.

  3. Charlie says:

    Frank sounds like he has a good solution — the tracking will discourage obssessive corrections and solve the problem of integrity, assuming it can track when a change is made. I wonder what are the odds of a Lexis or a Westlaw adopting this approach. If such techniques were used, “last visited on ___” citations would become standard.