SCI 2 Report
Practical Ethics (2004)
The Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI) was funded to “provide an opportunity for leaders in the field [of scholarly communication] to study, plan, and organize institutional and discipline-based strategies for advancing the state of scholarly communication. Participants will be challenged to imagine the ideal scholarly communication system, and what the changing nature of scholarly inquiry might look like in such a system.” From the beginning there was a commitment on the part of the organizers to be pragmatic and to develop strategies and action plans that would result in real-world modeling and testing of the ideal.
Originally a collaboration between the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and the Dartmouth College Library, the SCI held its first session in July 2003. Convening a number of leading scholars, librarians, publishers, technologists, and academic officers, it set itself the task of identifying what the fundamental challenges to transformation are in the humanities disciplines. The participants recommended a strategy for lowering those barriers: they agreed that the institutes to follow in the next two years would be organized around disciplinary research and publication, not around pedagogy. The sessions would not support gifted and innovative individual scholars to pursue their work, but rather support institutional teams comprising scholars, librarians, technologists, and academic officers; these would constitute the core units of experimentation upon which to build partnerships of innovators.
Planning for Session Two
When CLIR’s key collaborator at Dartmouth College, Richard Lucier, decided to retire last year, we sought a new partner in the University of Virginia Libraries, led by Karin Wittenborg, who had been a participant in the first SCI session. The organizers decided early on that we would not address the barriers to progress in fields that had tried innovative approaches to scholarly communication and had already hit the usual walls (identified in detail at the first SCI session: lack of credentialing within the peer-review hierarchy; lack of sustained funding; lack of flexibility; and lack of scalability). It is completely beyond the power of agents outside a discipline, such as the SCI, to engender the systemic changes needed to make a difference within that discipline, especially on matters so close to the profession as peer review and departmental decision-making. That was, after all, Lesson Number One from the Dartmouth SCI session.
Instead, we decided to focus on an academic discipline that may be noted less for its individual pioneers in digital scholarship than for its history of working in highly collaborative modes, of being open to change, and of being friendly to pragmatism in the service of scholarship. It was also an imperative from the first SCI to focus on a discipline with special strength at UVa. That way we could start with strong scholarly partners already on campus, and from that base we could engage a field by catalyzing an endogenous peer-to-peer network across several different campuses. Our hypothesis was that if we could ignite the imagination of senior scholars–help them see how information technologies might enable new and possibly better research and teaching approaches–then we could expect them to draw their peers and graduate students into this experiment; and over time the best of their work would be adopted naturally within the discipline and across several campuses.
Practical Ethics became the field of choice for our second year. It is an emerging discipline grounded in philosophy and religious studies. It has from its origins in the 1960s been collaborative, interdisciplinary, and geographically located on campuses in research centers, not academic departments. The Institute for Practical Ethics and Public Life at the University of Virginia, under the direction of James Childress and Ruth Gaare Bernheim, took the lead in recruiting other centers for Practical Ethics to join the SCI2. In the end, three centers brought teams to Charlottesville, each noted for its academic strength and for the strength of their libraries’ commitments to digital scholarship: the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University; the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University; and the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota.
The organizers also convened an external advisory group to help develop the SCI2 program. Most of these advisors had been to the SCI1, but a few were added because of their expertise in philosophy or digital humanities. Jim Childress and Ruth Gaare Bernheim talked the group through what they saw as the communication problems facing their community and, more importantly, what “grand challenges” Practical Ethics will engage in the coming decades. This mix of challenges, both grand and mundane, became one of the guiding principles of the session planning and determined who we invited both to be presenters and to be non-presenting participants.
Accomplishments of Session Two
A fuller account of the discussions held at SCI2 can be found in the session notes. What follows is a summary of the key intellectual and organizational issues that we engaged over the course of SCI2.
Practical Ethics: Definitions, Challenges, and Aspirations
The ethicists at SCI2 identified a number of characteristics of their work that frame their approaches to scholarly communication and the various technologies that support their research, teaching, and dissemination. The field of Practical Ethics attempts to bridge theory and practice, and so positions methodological issues at the very core of the discipline. The methodologies of various interrogations of sources, as well as searching and presentation of them, became the entry point for many of the discussions, and this focus was especially helpful in opening up the discussions to those outside the field. At that level, we were all able to contribute to the debates about fundamentals of scholarly communication and scholarship as such.
David Germano’s presentation of the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library made several claims for digital scholarship, many of them to be read in the context of SCI2 as ethical imperatives for humanities scholars writ large:
- To understand other cultures
- To “take back our scholarship” from publishers
- To remove or obviate privileged communications
- To integrate a host of resources and resource types (media, formats)
- To make the accessibility of information in multiple languages a research and development priority
- To build in the promise of active learning where students can build knowledge from information and “breaking the mimetic contract between student and teacher” (you spit back to me what I told you)
- To allow multiple contributors to provide content and services to a common site but include credit for work done by each
These are all ethical imperatives (loosely speaking) that digital technology can enable. Others contributed to this list of desirable behaviors that technology could, if properly designed and used, enable. One philosopher, William May, noted that the technology is naturally one that favors broadcast, not narrow-cast; that is, it moves information horizontally across networks, not primarily vertically up and down chains of hierarchy. Thus it is less effective at the “filial discourse” of the academy in which one directs ones’ voice upwards to the figures of authority, rather than out and across to the brothers and sisters in the field. Still others called for building on that digital dynamic to open up both professional discourse and public.
To the extent that Practical Ethics defines itself as “case-based moral reasoning,” the interactive media-based case studies that Robert Cavalier showcased demonstrated the technology’s particular affinity for the field of ethics. The technology encourages the co-existence of many media in one space, from video to sound to text, without necessarily privileging one over the other. It allows for the full emotional impact of visual images that are also part of the empirical experience and decision making itself. The Dax Cowart case interactive program was one that thrust the viewer into the shoes of those forced to make decisions about the injured man’s fate. It had programmed into it the ability to simulate the decision-making process by parsing out information from the perspective of the various actors at different times. Cavalier argued that, if properly designed, interactive multimedia allow for “reflective engagement.”
It is crucial for ethicists that the technology build in spaces for reflection, not just information creation, sorting, dissemination. Otherwise, given how digital technologies foreshorten the usual time between writing and publishing, there is a danger of publishing on the Web deteriorating into what May characterized as “drive-by ethics,” or the equally regrettable debasement of wisdom into “knowingness.” This presents special temptation to Practical Ethics, according to the ethicists, because much of the information they rely on falls not into the category of “timeless,” but rather into that of “timeliness.” They need the best possible data about breaking news stories such as the Shuttle disaster, the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, developments in stem-cell research, or the facts of Abu Ghraib. Who knew what when are crucial information points in every ethics case.
There are many ways to correct for this tendency to “knowingness,” though, once this is foregrounded as a hazard. One way, an ethicist suggested, is to include moral exemplars in our work, thus reinforcing the crucial distinction between wisdom and expertise. Others confirmed that this emphasis on “practical wisdom” in ethics, while not new, is one of the “grand challenges” of the discipline.
The Double-Decker Bus
The creative tension in the field between the empirical and theoretical is another of the grand challenges participants identified as a special area of promise for new information technologies. Case-based moral reasoning must be grounded firmly in the particular and experiential–the context in which ethical choices are made–because each set of ethical choices is constrained by (or defined by) the intractable and non-theoretical facts on the ground. But if one does not move beyond the immediate context in which events occur (in a legal case, in a medical case, in an environmental impact statement, or any number of other professional and policy arenas) into the realm of reflection, then we are not doing Practical Ethics. One needs to go into the world of action, but arrive there with a theoretical perspective and the reflective practices that ethicists rely on. Most importantly for Practical Ethics as its practitioners defined it at SCI2, they must they let the empirical world have its influence in the development of theory. There is nothing static about any of this.
This dynamic found a happy metaphor when Elizabeth Kiss quoted James Boyle, her colleague at Duke who specializes in intellectual property law, saying that he often felt as if he were riding on a double-decker bus, with his professional colleagues on the top deck, those who live in the world of experience (copyright owners and those using copyrighted works in his case) in the lower deck. The parallel with Practical Ethics is striking. And as the sessions progressed, it emerged that the ethicists’ greatest area of interest for concern about scholarly communication lay not in bridging communication divides between the scholarly discourse versus teaching versus general public discourse. Rather, their deeper interest is in the two-way traffic between the upper deck of theory and the lower deck of empiricism. Making the movement “down” into the world of the hospital, or the law courts, or the corporation, or research lab, presents one set of problems. But of more concern–at least as it played out at SCI2–is how to make the climb back “up.” The return trip from experience to theory, from the immersion into the world to a distancing and reconnection with the creative energies of ethics scholarship emerged as the “communication challenge” that the teams plan to tackle in their follow-up to the institute. People agreed with the assertion by William May that “social vector” of academic writing in Practical Ethics is “outward, over, and across” as opposed to “upward” and “filial” to the gatekeepers, as in more traditional academic discourse. The vector of digital communication is also “outward, over, and across.”
Once that participants had grasped the nettle of methodology, people could begin to map possible technological solutions to the challenges posed. How can ethicists tap into the knowledge and wisdom of philosophy and religious studies, once they have left the fold to enter into the empirical realm? How do they negotiate the up-and-down-and-back-up again in the academy? Several ethicists expressed an abiding concern about the possibility of being co-opted by the culture in which they are immersed; they feel an intense need for the critical distance that their grounding in philosophy or religious studies gives them. But tapping into that reflective literature can be extremely time-consuming because it is difficult to keep up the literature these days. How does one mediate among the sources available on the Web and elsewhere to find what they need in an efficient way?
What Digital Information Technologies Offer for Practical Ethics
Discussions about the ways that technology might assist ethicists do Practical Ethics were always accompanied by observations about what technology will not be able to do, and what hazards new technologies may introduce into the mix. Technologies by their nature change not only what we are able to investigate, but also how we frame the context in which the objects of inquiry occur, as was vividly demonstrated by the debates among ethicists about the ways the Dax Cowart case changed according to how it was presented–in video or interactive media. Investigators must always understand their instruments. The telescope gives us a cosmic view; the microscope a reductionist view. Technology saturates the outcome.
An improved scholarly communication system could ease some pains of communication for Practical Ethics, but whatever is put into place will always reflect the fundamental dilemmas that the field finds itself in. An example: Because Practical Ethics is interdisciplinary, it requires self-teaching in the area beyond the core education in philosophy or religious studies. This is usually an immersion in an unfamiliar domain like the hospital or the lab. This experience was described as something akin to anthropological field work or area studies cultural immersion. While this is a routine feature of Practical Ethics, there is no set formula for assessing the integrity of this cross-disciplinary work. There is no one path to be taken that is recognized as correct within the discipline. Technology will not change any of that by itself.
But technology does have the ability to make multiple views of an information resource possible. That is, it allows for the shifting perspectives into a space that are inherent in the domain–the empirical context and the theoretical framework can both be accommodated. Moreover, because digital technology by its nature forces scholars to “disambiguate” certain terms or contexts with which they are very familiar, as Germano noted, it does have the virtue of making experts examine unexamined assumptions.
These were among the points made by the presenters who were able to match their experiences with digital scholarly projects of their own with what they heard the ethicists say they view as the promise of technology. Other key lessons offered to the SCI by presenters include:
- Team-building is a crucial element of success in this realm, both teams built across professional boundaries on campus (e. g., the Hopkins’ Roman de la Rose project), and across universities (Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library)
- Team work itself has ethical dimensions, as so much of the key work of a project like the Rose is done by normally low-visibility partners (librarians, technologists, graduate students) or resource-limited partners (Tibetan partners).
- Partners with content to provide must find a reliable hosting institution (e. g., in the case of the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library, it is the UVa library; in the case of the Rose, it is the Hopkins library).
- Partnerships must involve alignment of self-interests (e. g., Hopkins had little content to contribute to the Rose: by providing the technology infrastructure, it gained access to others’ content, just as the content-rich institutions gained infrastructure support).
- Commercial partners may or may not have a sustainable self-interest in an academic partnership–due diligence is required.
- All partnerships, even virtual ones, must invest in constant communication, including face-to-face meetings.
Robert Cavalier reinforced the centrality of scholars finding libraries to partner with. With the “computational turn” in philosophy, he warned, libraries will become necessary and major players in order that what happens in the lab will “get to publication” and be accessible far into the future.
Judging by the richness of discussion over several days, together with a final presentation by team members expressing their resolve to pursue an experiment in a new model of scholarly communication, we can cautiously say that our hypothesis about how to catalyze change was borne out, at least in this instance. Bringing together distinguished and open-minded scholars, teaming them with potential partners from their own campus, and exposing them to innovative strategies from numerous areas of digital humanities, did ignite their imagination and inspire them to pursue some common action.
Most significant for the organizers in retrospect was to witness the forging of new intramural alliances for action. Those new alliances are not between the centers for Practical Ethics, who clearly already have a basis of trust and collaboration going, but between professionals across campuses–scholars and graduate students with librarians, academic officers, and technologists. Although co-habiting the same campus, these individuals had experienced few occasions to come together, and fewer to learn about and explore what each has to offer the other. This probably speaks more to the nature of the contemporary university than either the individuals involved or the disciplines they represent. One of the challenges that innovators in scholarly communication will continue to encounter is the fractionated nature of the academy, the chronic shortage of time to come together in reflection and exploration, and the lack of professional reward for taking a risk.
Our keynote speaker, Deanna Marcum, threw down the gauntlet to the participants in her opening remarks, saying that humanists work in ways that are inimical to the emerging digital information environment because their traditional methodologies favor those who work, “monk-like,” in isolation from one another. In the new environment scholars are often dependent on massive systems and supporting infrastructure that do not favor a “by-the-each” approach that have shaped print-on-paper based university presses and research libraries. How, she asked, do we come together to build common systems and resources if there are no traditions of working together?
Among other things, the days that followed served as a lively refutation of that characterization, at least in terms of how humanist scholars actually work through intellectual problems. The group spent a good deal of their social time skulling through the thorny problems that emerged during the working sessions. And by the second day that teams were reporting back on their identification of several disciplinary resources they would like to build together and share through networked communications.
The SCI2 also showed that while new technologies–in this case, information technology–can be disruptive, they always prompt serious people to examine their core assumptions and to reconnect with their chosen professions in ways that rekindle their enthusiasm and curiosity. The ways in which the ethicists grappled out loud with the core matter of the discipline actually allowed the many non-ethicists in the room to enter into their world in a surprisingly intimate and welcoming way. In the same vein, the librarians and technologists were ready, even eager, to engage in problem solving and articulating strategies for moving forward.
The four teams left the institute talking of planning some real-world modeling and testing of their idea for a common information resource. They proposed modeling a repository for case studies and populating it with some iconic cases in different fields. While they were torn between creating a resource with depth versus one with breadth, the felicitous thing about building a case study repository is that the layers of data can be so heterogeneous, from primary sources in all media, to commentary, scholarly explication, etc., that they need not choose between the two. Moreover, there is the promise of good “alignment of self-interests,” as Sayeed Choudhury had espoused. Each center of ethics can contribute their strengths and no one has to play to their weaknesses. The University of Minnesota can do case studies in stem-cell research, which is their primary interest. Another can contribute cases in business ethics, and so forth. Many of the iconic cases, from Tuskegee to Enron, can be multivalent, viewed from the perspectives of different sub-fields within Practical Ethics. And to build such a repository would mean engaging in some of the fundamentals of the field, such as building taxonomies.
CLIR and UVa will be supporting the next stages of this institute, facilitating their communications and, through some follow-up funding, helping the teams put together a plan and funding proposal to take their model to the next stage.