Judging Web Sites by Their Covers:
Seeking Authority in Cyberspace

By Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University — Newark

Delivered 29 December 2002 at MLA in New York City

My talk today has three parts: first, what we desperately need; second, why we can't have it; and third, what we can do until we get it.

The first part, the need, can be summed up in a word: authority. They say you can't judge a book by its cover. Poppycock: you can judge many books by their spines. Not with any great degree of precision, of course, but a cover or a spine gives us a rough idea of the kind of authority a book claims for itself, if not the degree. You can tell at once that a CUP monograph is likely to contain one kind of information subjected to one kind of scrutiny, a Penguin Classic another, and a Danielle Steele novel yet another. The mechanisms have grown up haphazardly: to name just a few milestones in the half millennium since printing was developed around 1450, the Index librorum prohibitorum was instituted in 1564; the first English university press book was published in 1584; the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries experimented with standards for title pages; the printed cover came along in the nineteenth century; the illustrated dustjacket and paperback with back-cover testimonials followed in the twentieth. All provide potential readers with clues about the reading experience that awaits them. On the Web, though, these mechanisms have not yet emerged, and there's no ready way to estimate the reliability of electronic resources.

I should anticipate the obvious objection: even the Clarendon colophon is no guarantee of intelligence or originality. Of course. But the institutional imprimatur, though not wholly reliable, does tell us certain things. This was true when the real imprimaturs and nihil obstats explained a work's relation to Church doctrine, and it remains true when refereed journals advertise their editorial board's expertise. They tell us not that the work that bears their stamp is gospel truth, but that scholars and editors who have paid their dues have agreed that the work is probably worth our time.

Time is the issue. Had we but world enough and time, we could read everything and judge it on its merits. But even a long academic career of fifty years consists of fewer than twenty thousand days; even if we could read a book a day for an entire career, we'd get through only a fraction of what's published in a single year. We have no choice but to depend on others' judgments about what's likely to repay attention. That's all the modern imprimatur tells us: that someone thinks this book is probably worth a few of our twenty thousand days.

So the problem isn't new, but it has become more pressing with the publication of scrillions of pages on the World Wide Web ranging from the most impeccable scholarship to the most haphazard. And yet there's rarely an editorial board or a press's reputation to tell us a page is worth even a part of one of our twenty thousand days. We can usually depend on the fact that a book from Chicago has undergone certain kinds of review, and we can tell our students that a book or journal in the campus library has undergone others. We haven't the leisure to wait five centuries for the standards to work themselves out on the Web.

Anyone who teaches research methods faces the problem, but much discussion is disturbingly unsophisticated. Many teachers and librarians encourage students to look for .edu versus .com in a URL, for instance, and to pay attention to the school's name. It's easy to catalogue objections: it neglects .ca and .uk addresses; it slights commercial resources compiled by reputable academics; it reinforces the snobbish assumption that someone at Harvard is brighter than someone at Eastern Kankakee Polytechnic. Some are less sophisticated still, and simply trust nothing on the Web — thereby missing out on the superb scholarship of Romanticism on the Net and The Blake Archive, or even Project Muse and JSTOR. But it's not a binary matter of having authority or not; authority comes in countless kinds and degrees, and we have to be sensitive to all of them.

So it's clear we need some mechanism to help us to distinguish the worthy scholarship from the shoddy. Something foolproof is surely a pipe dream, but there's no reason we can't aspire to roughly the level of authority of printed books. But what's to be done? I confess I have no good answers. For starters, I don't think there's a technological solution: Google's ranking algorithm is no substitute for refereed publication. And I'm not convinced that we should simply reproduce the existing print mechanisms of authority on the Web. I've spoken so far only of the benefits of these mechanisms, but we all know they're imperfect. I don't want to perpetuate the disadvantages inherent in the status quo, and I don't want to lose the advantages offered by the fast-moving electronic media. My mention of the Index librorum prohibitorum, moreover, should remind us that ill-considered standards can do more harm than good. And I'm dubious about the effectiveness of pronouncements on what the profession as a whole should do: witness the resolutions from the MLA on any number of issues which, however much assent they may generate, rarely translate into practical action. There's no reason to think a committee can solve the problem by putting its stamp on "authorized" Web sites, some little thumbs-up graphic reading "MLA SEZ A-OK!" The process can be helped along, but it can't be rushed, and it certainly can't be settled by fiat.

And so, having stated the problem and then discredited the answers, I have to offer some suggestion. Well, if we can do little to change the professional mechanisms regarding authority, there's one area where we can have a real impact — and that's in teaching. I propose that we should work to make our students, from freshmen to doctoral candidates, more aware of these questions of authority. Too often these things are left unspoken. That won't work anymore: the stakes are too high.

An example: many teachers' rules on the use of Internet resources serve only to muddy the waters. Some forbid Web research altogether; others limit students to two or three Web sites in a bibliography; and all without making clear the reasons behind the thou-shalt-nots. They commendably want to save students from sloppy work, but sheltering them from bad information without showing them why it's bad only cheats them. We have to communicate to them the grounds on which we judge various resources.

It won't be easy. We've all learned to recognize certain markers of authority almost unconsciously. Some are obvious and easily communicable: we know to look for reliable scholarly editions in the bibliography, conscientious documentation throughout, adherence to one of the major style guides for mechanics. A Web page on T. S. Elliot with two L's, providing unsourced quotations riddled with typos; another on Ben Jonson sporting a picture of Samuel and quoting mass-market paperbacks — these tip us off that we're unlikely to find much of academic worth. Other markers of authority are less tangible, but no less real — a certain range of styles and tones, for instance, is acceptable in scholarship, and we know how to distinguish academic writing from a fan's adoration or a high schooler's crib sheet. When a Web site proclaims its mission of sharing the unparalleled love poems by the enduring and universal genius of William Shakespeare, I adjust my expectations accordingly. It may be very fine in its kind, but it was probably conceived by and for someone with interests different from mine, and different from the interests I'm trying to inculcate in my students. How am I to communicate this to them?

A personal story. A pesky medical condition has in the last few years sent me to the Web for health information — and suddenly I find myself a babe in the woods, wandering through medical sites with little idea of what's by reputable professionals and what by ignorant cranks. I'm skeptical enough to distrust promised panaceas, and I'm always on the lookout for concealed commercial motives. But I'm still often baffled. I've found this confusion salutary — at least intellectually salutary, even if it's done little to improve my physical health. It has reminded me that the markers we take for granted in our profession are by no means obvious to outsiders, and that my undergraduates looking for literary resources on the Net are as baffled as I am when I'm looking for medical resources. And it has shown me the importance of being clear with my students, of working to teach them to evaluate claims to authority. Things that I had picked up unconsciously now have to be made explicit in the classroom.

Being out on the scholarly frontier, far from the old trail markers of respectability, is daunting, but it may in the end prove a blessing. If it makes us think more seriously about the grounds on which we're prepared to accept an argument as plausible or authoritative, it will have made us better scholars; if it makes us explain those grounds to students, it will have made us better teachers. And it may even be the single most important lesson we can teach our students in the twenty-first century. Teaching them to distinguish Petrarchan from Shakespearean sonnets is important, but it's far more important to teach them to distinguish the sheep from the goats.