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Textual authority and academic publication

20 April 2013

A lot of the work that I do is on the genealogy of ideas, the tracing of the progression of political and social theories through the early modern period. A question I have to wrestle with a lot of textual authority: the power and influence which texts hold over later or contemporary thinkers. In particular my current research requires me to ask after the authoritative sources informing the political theories of Luis de Molina and Hugo Grotius in order to understand how and why they diverge and how different moral ontologies and epistemologies are operative in their thought. My later research goals will require me to expand this line of questioning to more Iberian scholastics of the 16th and 17th centuries and, I hope, eventually to raise this question through the lens of critical race theory to examine notions of humanity, rationality, and race in the early Castilian and Dutch colonial empires, as well as the way the authoritative intermediary voices of Grotius and Pufendorf allowed Iberian natural jurisprudence to influence Scandinavian absolutist thinking. That so much of my time is spent pondering these sorts of question seems to be why I am curious about how textual authority is operative today, especially in the academy.

Traditionally academic publication has been three-tiered, consisting of the paper in an academic journal, the monograph, and the book. But the rise of the internet, especially the ‘world wide web’ (I’m not being pedantic and I defy you to prove that the usenet changed academic publication forever) has given us hosts of new ways to share research and exchange ideas. Online journals, free or not, are perhaps the most obvious but far from the only way. Ebooks (as an umbrella term for the wide variety of electronic book and monograph publication) as a way to publish and share are also on the rise. Last but not least, academic blogs break the mould entirely, because they offer not simply a repackaging of the old analogue paradigms but a whole new way of thinking about how we share our work (I’m not going to make a case right now for ‘micro-blogging’ but I think there is one to be made, especially in the case of Twitter, though its lack of openness as a platform is a bit of a bugbear).

As new forms of academic publication are becoming more accessible, new patterns of authority within academic sources are emerging. Established print journals continue to sit at the top of hierarchy of authority, with web-based publications such as online and open-access journals and personal or group academic blogs appearing as you travel downward. This apparent taxonomy of authority raises some obvious questions. Why are print publications more trustworthy or authoritative than online ones? Why is a scholar’s blog not a worthwhile venue in which to make public their research, particularly while it is on-going? I don’t have any satisfactory answers to these questions. The easy answers about the general conservative of academia and its popular anti-internet prejudice are just too, well, easy and not a little lazy. I imagine and, I’ll admit, hope that the answer(s) is/are more nuanced than ‘academics hates them that there Google.’ It’s a question I ponder from time time and one I return to here in the future.

If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 21 April 2013 10:53 am

    Some earlier thoughts of mine (specifically for philosophy and its history, too long to be simply pasted here):

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