A Cautionary Tale for the Digital Age

By Barry P. Scherr, Dartmouth College

Article originally published in the June 2016 edition of NewsNet.

As we move ever more deeply into the digital age, researchers regularly benefit from and rely upon the vastly increased accessibility to sources. From the comfort of their offices or from their home computer scholars can peruse many materials that once could have only been obtained by a trip to their campus library, and often items that in previous decades would have necessitated an interlibrary loan request or a journey to an archive turn out to be just a few mouse clicks away. In certain instances, of course, the reliability of what appears on a computer screen cannot be taken for granted: for instance, a poem that somebody has posted to a website may well contain a copying error. At the same time, most assume that a book or a journal found online is the same as the physical copy. Here too, however, doveriai, no proveriai —trust but verify—remains good advice, as the following story illustrates.

The tale begins with Alexander Zholkovsky, the prominent linguist and literary critic who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1979, and who has recounted the first part of the tale in an article entitled “Byt´ znamenitym…,” which appeared in the journal Zvezda (2012, no. 11, pp. 212–217). A prolific writer of perceptive and well-crafted scholarly works, he has also on occasion ventured into creative writing, composing both fiction and memoirs. His first major undertaking in this regard came during the late 1980s, when he wrote about a dozen short stories, some of which were initially published in the émigré press. Around that time glasnost and perestroika arrived in the Soviet Union; thus Zholkovsky was once again able to visit his homeland. Now that it was also possible for him to publish within Russia, he submitted the stories to the journal Znamia, which rejected them. So instead he gathered his fiction into a separate book, which came out in Russia in 1991; the stories again appeared in book form in 2005.

Zholkovsky has remarked that his stories bear a certain resemblance to the work of Vasilii Aksenov, the Soviet writer who had skyrocketed to fame at the beginning of the 1960s. The lively dialogue in Aksenov’s early works along with his frequent focus on young people who were fascinated by Western culture and did not fit into Soviet society made him a fresh voice in Russian literature of the day; as time went on, his work became more openly satirical and frequently fantastic. Zholkovsky, himself a young man as Aksenov emerged onto the literary stage, was one of those who admired his writings from the start, and eventually he analyzed some of them in his articles—thus it is understandable that Zholkovsky’s own fiction could reflect the influence of this author. In 1980, Aksenov, whose znamyaongoing problems with the Soviet authorities had become exacerbated when he participated in the unauthorized publication of the almanac Metropol´, accepted an invitation to come to the U.S. Once abroad he was deprived of his Soviet citizenship; for the next quarter century he largely lived in Washington DC and Virginia. Zholkovsky and Aksenov had met very briefly while both were still living in the Soviet Union but were not really acquainted. As émigrés, however, they came to know each other, crossing paths on several occasions over the years. When Zholkovsky was about to publish his stories as a book in 1991, he sent them to Aksenov, who agreed to write a brief introduction.

Aksenov died in 2009, and three years later Zholkovsky attended a conference in Russia to mark what would have been the writer’s 80th birthday. As Zholkovsky mentioned in the Zvezda article, his contributions to the conference included both a formal paper and a memoir detailing his handful of meetings with Aksenov. At the conclusion of the conference he and a prominent authority on Aksenov were exchanging addresses, when his new acquaintance mentioned that he was publishing some materials from Aksenov’s archive, including three previously unknown stories, in the forthcoming issue of Znamia —the same journal that had rejected Zholkovsky’s stories more than 20 years earlier. When Zholkovsky asked what the titles were, he was astonished to learn that two of the stories were his own and among those that already appeared in books he had published in Russia. His colleague was no doubt even more taken aback and desperately tried to call the associate editor of Znamia to rectify the error before the journal went to press, but he could not reach her on that Friday evening.

The next day Zholkovsky looked at the online version of the issue that was already available, and he was delighted to see an introductory note stating that “the psychological subtlety of these stories allows us to regard them as among the masterpieces of the mature Aksenov; they would enhance even the most selective anthology devoted to this genre.” Soon word of the mistake reached the editors of Znamia, the posting of that issue was taken down, and so, he believed, Zholkovsky’s brief flirtation with fame had ended. There were of course some unanswered questions. Even a little research would have turned up references to the two stories that had already appeared within Russia; why was the journal (or at least the scholar publishing this material) so careless? And how had precisely these two stories ended up among Aksenov’s papers? Did he have a special reason for keeping these two from among the batch that Zholkovsky had sent him? Such questions did not lend themselves to ready answers, and when the October 2012 issue of Znamia appeared in print without the two stories Zholkovsky assumed that the matter had been put to rest.

But not quite. Zholkovsky’s article about this incident was reprinted in a volume of his works that I was asked to review for a scholarly journal. My curiosity was piqued by this amusing tale, and I found myself wondering just how the journal had altered the contents of this issue at the very last minute before it went to press and whether the editors in any way acknowledged their mistake. Since this is the digital age, even though I wasin a library study only a couple of minute’s walk from where the journal is shelved, laziness dictated that I use my computer to look at the library’s electronic version of Znamia, 2012, issue no. 10—made available by presumably the same service through which most libraries subscribe to the electronic edition of the journal. There I found, much to my surprise, the very same introduction from which Zholkovsky had quoted in his article. And indeed the two stories by Zholkovsky were still published in the online issue, as though they were by Aksenov. What I was looking at — and what anyone else going to that website would find as of this writing — was the same misattribution that the journal had corrected in its print edition.

I eventually ventured into our library’s stacks and retrieved the hard copy of the issue. In the online version the publication of materials by Aksenov had been on pp. 131–57; in print it turned out to be on pp. 136–51. I did not notice any acknowledgment that there had been a mistake but saw evidence of the hasty effort to rectify matters, though the editors managed to keep the first 123 pages and everything from p. 158 until the end (p. 239) the same. Just one instead of three stories appears in the print edition of the publication; the two items by Zholkovsky, which were originally on pp. 140-51, had disappeared. A story by Vladimir Kantor has been inserted at the end of the fiction and poetry section, bumping a “non-fiction” section five pages further into the issue and thus delaying the start of the Aksenov publication by five pages. The archival section in which the Aksenov items appear is now filled out by a new publication regarding the writer Viktor Astafiev (pp. 152–57). There are also some additional changes within the Aksenov materials. The introductory note, logically enough, now refers to one story (rather than “stories”) worthy to be called “a masterpiece of the mature Aksenov.” A set of rapid-fire answers by Aksenov to a questionnaire—mentioned in some detail in the original introductory note—has been eliminated. Was its authenticity too called into question at the last moment? And there is one addition: the two excerpts from Aksenov’s diary that conclude the publication are extended by a few paragraphs, probably in order to fill in a gap and maintain the original pagination for the rest of the issue.

The differences are not huge, but they have the potential to be significant. It is, for example, easy to imagine that a diligent researcher working on Aksenov would track down this online version of the publication someday and (if a correction has not been made) assume that the two Zholkovsky stories are part of Aksenov’s oeuvre; perhaps the result would even be an article or two that perpetuated the error. Granted, mix-ups of this sort probably do not occur frequently, and in this case the original fault lies with the journal. However, Znamia did fix its mistake, while the database continues to display the incorrect authorship of the two stories.

Thus the larger matters relate to the integrity of databases. In the digital age people have come to make extensive use of online materials, and if anything that reliance will only increase in the years ahead. Not only have scholars grown accustomed to the ready access that databases provide, but libraries—for considerations of space, if not cost—will continue to replace subscriptions to print copies of journals with just the electronic versions. Do all journals ensure that any last-minute changes are reflected in the material relayed to the provider that oversees the database? Do the providers themselves make checks in order to safeguard against errors such as that described here? And if a library receives only the electronic edition of a journal, can scholars be certain that the source is trustworthy? Until these questions can be answered affirmatively with greater confidence than this cautionary tale suggests, it is best to proceed with care. Caveat lector!