Academic hypertexts

Had a long talk with a colleague yesterday. He had read about wikis on Froomkin’s blog, and wondered if I knew anything about them. I pointed him to the wiki for my class this semester as an example. This is the first time I’ve used a wiki in such a setting, and it needs a lot more work. I am ashamed to say that I was putting faith in a “build it and they will come” model, which never works.

Anyway, he asked if I knew of any good academic hypertexts in the social sciences. That should be an easy one, right? Who has published their good theory-based work using hyperlinks to other work? I said I couldn’t think of exemplars off the top of my head. He said that he’d asked others the same question, and that’s pretty par for the course. I’ve just spent a little time browsing through the OpenTheory site, which is an impressive run in this direction, but I’m not sure what else may be out there. (If any of the readers can point me toward some, that would be excellent!) After all, this year is the first time in the fifteen-year history of the Hypertext conference that they are calling for research hypertexts specifically, in addition to the traditional formats.

Of course, the question is “Why not?”

This question is interesting in itself, and also as a superset of the blogging question: why don’t more academics blog (scholarly material)? Attempts to answer this question, though they look at the social problems, tend to focus on technological solutions (i.e., new systems: see this pdf for example). This implies that there is some significant impediment to publishing a hypertext online, and we should, of course, continue to remove barriers in this direction. There are also issues related to the market, including questions of copyright which remain to be threshed out. But overall, I think it’s clear that the problem is one of motivation.

The problem of motivating academic hypertext is analogous with that of electronic journals. Indeed, the two are closely tied. If you look at the successful electronic journals in our own field–JCMC, for example–you will see that they have not departed much from the traditional journal. Part of this is an issue of tipping points: since the bulk of the work in academia is still “ink on dead trees,” the citations in online work in our field will continue to be to offline work for many years. But I have a feeling part of the reason we don’t see more experimentation within online journals is that they are still struggling to gain the respectability of their bound cousins.

I would love to put together an academic hypertext. I’m technophilic, and many of the issues I research lend themselves to such an approach. But I am also pre-tenure faculty, and budgeting the time to create an academic hypertext would likely be academic suicide. Almost as bad as blogging :). If JCMC that actively encouraged the hypertext format (hinting in the direction of Susan Herring), that might be a different picture. But as it stands now, the picture is this. If you have an idea and you want it to be disseminated, and you want “credit” for it, you stay away from individual or collective hypertexts.

If incentives to create electronically-available academic hypertexts are established, we may move on to questions of how to encourage collaborative hypertexts. It is very tempting to assume that the nature of the Web will serve as encouragement enough, but I know better than this. As with electronic journals, the acceptance of academic hypertexts by the scholarly community will likely require a very gradual and conservative adoption. That said, a long history of collaboration in some fields (especially the sciences) may provide enough of a social framework to allow for successful collaborative hypertexts fairly quickly.

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  1. Posted 4/5/2004 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Roughly in that ballpark: Roger Schank’s Engines for Education (, single author)

    In the math area: PlanetMath (, collaborative)

    See also

  2. Posted 4/5/2004 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Thanks very much. I think we’re going to put together an interesting project. But it’s not going to happen in “internet time” :). These are useful models.

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  1. By Blog de Halavais on 4/3/2004 at 11:01 pm

    Doh! “Free Culture” wiki
    I =-” href=””>recently posted about a seeming dearth of wiki-based academic hypertexts. But someone has put Lessig’s new book Free…

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