Since the early days of the Web, I've been scanning and preparing electronic texts, mostly but not exclusively of eighteenth-century works.
The quality of E-texts available on the Internet varies tremendously, from the meticulous Rossetti edition prepared by Jerome McGann at Virginia through the nearly worthless copies of countless works taken anonymously and haphazardly from unnamed editions without textual authority, sometimes missing entire chapters, often riddled with typos.
Having done my share of preparing electronic texts, I sympathize with those who've released bad ones: the obstacles are considerable. Copyright laws, for instance, restrict the availability of texts on the Net. Of course any copyrighted original work is excluded right away. But even those who work in earlier periods can reproduce only editions that have passed out of copyright, effectively excluding most twentieth-century scholarly and critical editions (Fredson Bowers, W. W. Greg, & Co. weren't let loose on texts until after the copyright cut-off). This forces E-text editors to work either from original texts, which are often difficult to obtain and impossible to scan (and may require considerable knowledge of textual criticism), or from out-of-copyright nineteenth-century editions, which are often ill prepared.
Because of these problems, I always recommend caution and skepticism in using almost any electronic text for serious research. Very few E-texts have so far superseded hard-copy standard editions. But even an imperfect E-text can be useful for some research purposes (when used in conjunction with a more reliable text), and, perhaps more important, making thousands of texts freely available promises to revolutionize pedagogy.
My motives for making these texts available vary widely. Some texts answer only my own needs for teaching: I want to make hard-to-find texts available cheaply to my students, without the hassle of ordering expensive anthologies or dealing with photocopies and reserve lists. These texts are sometimes abridged, modernized, or otherwise modified to suit the needs of my class, with little regard for the needs of others.
In other cases, though, I've tried to produce texts that may be useful to others — often things that aren't easily available in modern editions (such as Defoe's “Mrs. Veal” and D'Urfey's songs), or that are available only in expensive anthologies (such as Johnson's review of Soame Jenyns and his Life of Savage).
As the number of such texts grows (thanks to people such as Stuart Curran and Michael Gamer at Penn, who've made many previously rare Romantic texts widely available), instructors will be able to choose their teaching materials without regard for Books in Print at the bookshop and cash in hand among their students. They can put together custom anthologies, either by including pointers to the originals on the Net, or by printing copies and distributing them on paper, perhaps even with custom footnotes.
My own editorial practices have varied from text to text, depending at least partly on the primary use I envision for each one. In a few cases I've typed in texts directly from early editions (as in the case of Johnson's poetry), putting my meager knowledge of textual criticism to use — still, they're not critical editions but diplomatic transcriptions. More often, I've had to choose the best (or most important) nineteenth-century text available — such as Sir Walter Scott's Defoe, the 1825 Oxford Works of Samuel Johnson, or G. B. Hill's Prayers and Meditations in Johnsonian Miscellanies — which I sometimes reproduce verbatim and sometimes correct or emend (always with a notice of what I've changed).
In any text I prepare, I try to follow these principles, and encourage others to use them as a baseline for responsibly prepared electronic editions:
All these principles can be reduced to a Golden Rule: provide potential readers with as much information about the provenance of the E-text as possible.