While I was watching the video below, which shows Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) curator Ellen Baxter restoring a painting of Isabella dé Medici to its original glory, I couldn’t help but think back to Lisa Hinchliffe’s post earlier this week on “The State of the Version of Record”. The comments on the post contain a really interesting conversation about the idea of “living articles”, positing that there should be no Version of Record, but rather updates to research publications as more is learned.
I tend to struggle with this idea, for reasons both practical and ideological. On the practical front, it’s hard enough to get articles peer reviewed, let alone having to have them in a constant state of re-review and re-review every time a new data point is added, not to mention the time burden a constantly shifting article would put on both the author (time spent writing is time away from doing experiments) and the reader (you’d need to continuously check back on the article and figure out what in it had changed). Ideologically, to me the purpose of a research article is to tell the story of a research project. It is a historical record — we did these experiments this way, saw these results, and came to these conclusions. It is what we knew at the time the experiments were done and the article was written. Allowing the author to continually rewrite the article distorts that history. What’s to prevent an author who drew wrong conclusions from going back to rewrite the article as if they knew the right answer all along? Yes, of course you’d have a preserved set of the earlier versions, but is any time-strapped researcher really going to take the time to go dig back through the older versions rather than just looking at the surface?
And that brings us to Isabella dé Medici. The CMOA was able to obtain the painting because the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided they did not want it in their collection. It was obviously an overly sleek “Victorian” style portrait, lacking in historical value. However, upon further examination, the curators at CMOA were able to detect layers underneath the surface, where the painting had been drastically altered, and through painstaking effort, restore it to it’s original “Version of Record”.
Does a “living article” allow the scholarly literature to be painted over in the style of the day, obscuring the original work done with a glossier but less accurate surface?