Accept/Reject? Quality decisions facing the Oxford Text Archive

  1. 1. Michael Popham

    Humanities Computing Unit - Oxford University

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The Oxford Text Archive is one of the world's best known electronic text centres, and has been in existence for almost a quarter of a century. At the time of its establishment in 1976, there were relatively few humanities scholars interested in the creation and use of electronic textual resources, which meant that it was all the more important to ensure that their efforts were preserved and made available to future generations. However, despite the small size of the humanities computing community, the resource implications of undertaking any work involving electronic text meant that such endeavours were rarely entered into lightly, or without significant scholarly and technical input.

In the summer of 1996, the OTA was appointed as the electronic text Service Provider for the UK's national Arts and Humanities Data Service. In many respects this appointment was extremely timely, as by now the international community of humanities computing scholars had grown significantly, and many individuals who were less computer-literate than their predecessors were starting to take advantage of the facilities offered by cheap scanning technologies and the emergence of the world wide web as a ubiquitous technology. Individual academics saw less of a need to rely upon the archival and distribution services offered by bodies such as the OTA, as they now believed that they could undertake these tasks for themselves. Yet this rapid growth in self-publishing on the web has raised a number of concerns -- not simply about the quality of the materials being created, but also about the methods and standards that have been used.

Within the UK, the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) has recently been established following agreement by the British Academy, the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI), and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). They have agreed to set up the Board pending a decision by the Government on whether to establish an Arts and Humanities Research Council. Funding for the AHRB will total over £36 million in the financial year 1998-99, and £44 million in 1999-2000, with contributions from all three parties to the agreement. Under section 10 of the application form for research grants in excess of £5000, applicants are now told that in the case of "projects whose primary purpose, or significant product, is the creation of an electronic resource, it will be a condition of award that data created as a result of the research, together with documentation, should be offered for deposit at the Arts and Humanities Data Service, within a reasonable time after the completion of the project. Applicants involved [in] research leading to the creation of such a resource are strongly advised to obtain advice from the AHDS concerning appropriate standards and methods". In practice this means that the AHDS Service Providers, such as the OTA, have been receiving a glut of enquiries from academics who will be affected by this new condition of award. Many of those who have contacted the OTA have been somewhat surprised to learn that we are less than enthusiastic about endorsing their plans to create their materials solely in HTML, and distribute these via a local website -- and very few have shown any awareness of the relevant standards for resource creation, preservation, and metadata.

We now find ourselves in something of a dilemma. The OTA is obviously keen to ensure the long-term preservation and availability of the scholarly outputs of AHRB-funded research. Yet at the same time, many of the electronic resources that seem likely to be produced by AHRB funding are not going to be created in accordance with crucial standards and best practices. So, whilst the scholarly content of these resources will almost certainly be of the highest order, they may turn out to be poor quality resources from the point of view of long-term preservation and viability. In order to address this problem, the OTA (and the four other AHDS Service Providers) will be producing a series of Guides to Good Practice, which will provide the necessary guidance to the creators of electronic scholarly resources. However, at the time of writing, it seems unlikely that the AHRB will compel resource creators to follow the advice of the AHDS Service Providers, which will surely result in the creation of many technologically weak and poor quality resources, not to mention the squandering of available funding. Moreover, if these resources are to be preserved and remain viable in the long-term, they are likely to prove difficult and costly for the OTA to maintain, and present future end-users with additional problems (and therefore costs) to overcome.

Elsewhere within the academic community, we have seen the emergence of other recommendations, such as the MLA's Guidelines for Electronic Scholarly Editions. Although this document relates to the production of one very specific kind of electronic textual resource, it is gratifying to note that it draws heavily upon the recommendations set out in the Text Encoding Initiative's Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange (TEI-P3), and is therefore in keeping with the recommendations made by the OTA to resource creators. Even so, despite the fact that the MLA, TEI, and OTA are in accord with regard to what constitutes good practice when creating electronic resources, it seems likely that it will be some time yet before the majority of academics (and especially those with minimal computing expertise), adopt such practices as a matter of course.

This paper will briefly set out the OTA's perception of electronic resource creation within the UK, and examine the reasons why many academics seem unwilling or unable to adopt the recommendations and good practices that originate from several of the key players in the scholarly electronic text community. It will then look particularly at the challenges confronting the OTA when identifying and accepting electronic textual resources for accessioning into the OTA's holdings. Having discussed the difficulties of weighing scholarly merit against the long-term preservation costs, viability, and usability of resources, the paper will conclude with an explication of the OTA's policy concerning this contentious area, and set out our criteria for resource selection.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Virginia

Charlottesville, Virginia, United States

June 9, 1999 - June 13, 1999

102 works by 157 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (19), ALLC/EADH (26), ACH/ALLC (11)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None