Friday, 28 May 2010

The Digital Elephant

I don’t blog much, and indeed for the first time I thought it might be a good idea to have my own pages and stop piggy backing on UCLDH. But I started thinking about how I might contribute to Hacking the Academy and into my head popped a thought that has been disturbing me for a while and has been brought into sharper focus by recent goings on at UCLDH. That is the digital elephant in the room, in other words the real cost not just of creating but of preserving and curating digital data. There have been plenty of blogs and tweets decrying or praising what James Murdoch said at the launch of our centre last week. But whatever side of the debate you are on, I am glad of the exposure, because it brings to the fore an uncomfortable truth. Whether or not you put a pay wall in front of it, digital data is not free. It is not free to create, and it especially is not free to maintain or preserve.

I say it isn’t free to create, and doubtless readers will want to know what it costs me to write this blog. Well time for one thing, that I am not spending answering email, writing research proposals, having meetings, generally running UCLDH when I have too many things to do. And in the end time is a cost, especially as UCL pay for me to work with digital material. I recall John Unsworth talking about this opportunity cost in relation to editing Post Modern Culture. That was many years ago, but still it seems not to be taken seriously.

But mainly I am disturbed by the cost of maintaining and preserving things digital in the academic and cultural sector. At the moment there is an uncomfortable conspiracy of silence about this. When the creation of such material is publicly funded there is, in truth, no money properly to maintain digital resources, and thus a serious risk that public investment and the time taken by academics and information professionals in their creation is wasted. And yet we all lie about this. Sorry, that’s a harsh word, but we do. As applicants we all cross our fingers and insist that our universities will maintain digital resources for at least ten years, knowing that there is absolutely no hope of this happening, unless the PI herself happens to have time to do this. As reviewers we know that’s the case, but we want to see good things funded, so we pretend to believe it, and funders must do the same too. No funding council I ever heard of checks to see if resources really are still there, and still usable after even five, let along ten or more years, so they also become complicit in the ignorance of the elephant.

But what about institutional repositories, you may protest. Sure resources can be put into the institutional repository or dark archived, but that’s not enough, as we all know really. The work we did for our LAIRAH project showed that users are very quick to recognise when a digital resource is no longer updated, and that as a result they distrust its content and prefer not to use it. Instead they prefer commercial resources that look as though they might work well. That’s even the case if a website looks a bit out of date, let alone having problems with the content not working properly. So it’s vital that resources are updated and maintained regularly if we are to have any hope that they will be used after their completion. But who pays? The research councils don’t and neither do universities, whatever we might promise in our grant applications. At least there may be fortunate people out there in universities with dedicated support of this kind, but I’ve never heard of it in the UK at least. I’d love to establish this kind of service at UCL, but how would we fund it in the terrifyingly cash strapped times that are ahead?

So the unpleasant truth of this is that perhaps freely available digital resources don’t work, because if you don’t have an income stream coming in, then you can’t afford to maintain them, and thus they die if they can’t be used. I know, though, that the commercial publisher I used to work for regularly does update its resources, both back and front ends and so the resources that I worked on 15 years ago still work very well. I know that not to be the case for many, if not most resources produced in the academic sector. The reason why people charge for digital resources is not only to make profits, but also to keep their products doing what they ought to.

And all this is without going into the complex problems facing us concerning digital resources in the cultural heritage sectors and in academia, all of which were created with small scale project funding, all of which work in a different way, and many of which now will not work together in any kind of coordinated system or with a common interface. The unpalatable reality is that a lot of these freely available resources might stay free in future, but will be anything but available, because they won’t work and there will be no money to maintain them, or resurrect them. And that’s a huge scandal really. The cost of creating them must run into tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of public money, which is, in effect, wasted as a result. And worse the intellectual effort of all the creators is also lost. Few people seem to care about this, but imagine what would happen if I told the humanities scholars in my faculty that every copy of their book would be pulped in ten years time and that although a library might have an archive copy, no readers would be able to use it and that unless they regularly re-edited the old word file on their computer, it too would be unusable, by anyone but a technical expert. They would be horrified, and rightly so. But this is the analogue version of what we are facing in terms of digital resources if nobody can afford to maintain them.

So what do I propose to do? Well it’s not easy to find a solution to all this, especially not in these economic times. In an ideal world we would have digital curators whose task it would be to manage the maintenance and updating of digital resources in the academic and cultural heritage sectors. And they would be funded either by universities or public funds. But is that a realistic prospect? Not now I fear.

In a sense I am doing the very thing I tend to deprecate in humanities scholarship, in pointing out that a problem exists but being unable to offer a solution. But I do feel that it’s very important at least to point out the presence of the pachyderm. It’s not a very right-on thought, but even Richard Stallman has pointed out that free speech and free beer are not the same thing. If we want free in digital terms it may be that gratis is not the sense in which we must interpret the word. We might have to resign ourselves to the fact that free equals temporary, while only commercial resources might be expected to last. Or we may have to find creative ways to make content free to access, but fund it in some other way to ensure its life beyond initial public funding. For the life of me I can’t see what that might be, but for the continued life of digital resources, I do hope someone else can, or there will be a lot of digital white elephants in years to come.