Authority in Scholarly Communication

There are three words that are rarely used in the same sentence, but I think may need to be brought more closely together in future discussions about scholarly discourse: Diplomatics, scholarly communication, and digital curation.  Diplomatics was originally a method within archival science designed to establish authenticity in medieval legal documents (now of course expanded to electronic and other media).  Scholarly communication is of course about the ways in which academics disseminate their scholarship.  Digital curation as a field seeks to preserve and add value to content, particularly electronic resources, for future generations.  All of these fields share one characteristic – an interest in authority – that I think needs to be thought about in more depth.

Though authority is not always something discussed that overtly in much scholarly communication literature, is is an issue underlying many of those debates.  Who determines what articles are “valid” through the peer review system?  Who determines the peer reviewers?  How are those peer reviewers selected?  Are certain citations more valuable than others?  Why are certain journals more authoritative than others?  There is of course much scholarship devoted to some of these questions, but I think it is important to see how those questions are similar in many ways to similar questions posited within the field of digital curation.

Digital curation also seeks to understand better how to create “trustworthy” or to put that another way, authoritative digital repositories.  A digital curator might ask questions similar to those above about scholarly communication.  How can we determine what materials are more trustworthy than others?  Who determines and selects such materials for such a repository?  How is the authority of such selectors determined? Are certain repositories more authoritative than others?  Are certain methods of collecting more authoritative than others?

I discussed the concept of “organic information” previously, a concept that comes from the field of diplomatics.  I think this may be a useful framework to think about the concept of authority, particularly in the intersections of both scholarly communication and digital curation.  The theory of “organic information” that recognizes documents as an ever-changing material object that is dependent both on a physical (or in the case of electronic documents a virtual) form, but also is part of a dynamic social system that places different values on that object at different periods in history.  Additionally, the field of diplomatics has several criteria for evaluating authenticity within these contexts that can help to frame discussions of trust for any type of information that might be found within a digital repository.

Some scholars  define the fundamentals of diplomatics as a method of knowledge organization.  In the nineteenth century diplomatics established the principle of respect de fonds defined by Michel Duchein as “to group, without mixing them [documents] with others, the archives (documents of every kind) created by or coming from an administration, establishment, person, or corporate body.”  From this principle, other scholars have identified a differentiation between organic and non-organic information.  The former is defined as information gathered by an individual in the course of some practical activity; the latter refers to something that is contained in a bibliographic reference.  Respect de fonds, therefore, is about honoring the groups and individuals who have gathered certain documents together.  To put this another way, this principle is a method for studying how individuals create authority for certain documents and place those texts together in a kind of archive with other materials that might explain the collection of records as a whole.  In order to systematize this study, there are several methods diplomatistes (practitioners of diplomatics) utilize.

With the arrival of new kinds of documents and the recent explosion of information, scholars have been calling for an expansion of the field into these new areas. Francis Blouin tries to create a framework in which such developments could happen.  He identifies two sub-fields within diplomatics.  The first of these focuses on documents themselves.  This is the field practitioners most commonly associate with the word diplomatics, the study of an individual document (often a historical one like a medieval manuscript), and whether or not it is an original or a forgery.  Tied to that kind of study is a second, less well known, but equally important sub-field however that Blouin describes as “organizational context” or the connections between a particular document and the institution in which it was created and the people who created a document for a particular purpose.  He stresses that these two approaches are complementary and cannot be separated from one another.

Bruno Delmas identifies the purpose of diplomatics as a discipline that establishes authority within a particular document.  To do this, he identifies four characteristics: memory, evidence, understanding, and communication as essential elements of any document whether physical or electronic.  Delmas also distinguishes the methods of practice in which all diplomatists must engage.  These include the study of form (or what a document looks like and what its original purpose was), genesis (or the original context of a document), edition (whether a document was added to at a later time), and selection (how a document was chosen to represent a certain type of characteristic such as memory or evidence).  Olivier Guyotjeannin identifies the same basic methods as Delmas, though he describes them slightly differently.  He identifies form, tradition (similar to edition but including a concept of an author’s heritage and whether an author fits within a particular literary tradition), genesis, critique of false (the historical method of determining authenticity from previous scholarship and opinions), and chronology (study of dating of materials and how earlier dates translate into modern ones).  Guyotejeannin further argues (in ways similar to Blouin) that these methods ought to be applied to modern print and electronic materials.

How might diplomatics shape further discussions about authority in scholarly communication?  Fundamentally, all electronic documents, whether they are published through a scholarly journal or deposited in an online repository (and many documents go through both processes), are subject to these questions about authority.  Diplomatics, particularly the concept of “organic information,” I think provides an interesting framework to investigate these questions further.  Documents are a product of various social processes that shape them.  Using a historical and social analysis to determine authority might help reframe some of the ways we talk about establishing authority within the scholarly communication system.