Digital Scholarship

Digital History is frequently defined as “using computers to research, present, or teach history.” Last week we explored some pedagogical aspects which are unique to digital history (teach). In future weeks, we will discuss the many research tools and techniques which form a part of digital history analysis and research practices (research). So this week’s readings defined how scholarship works differently in digital formats (presenting on the web).

At its most basic level, scholarship has similar aims in digital or analog formats: to transmit ideas, start conversations, and earn reputation. The primary differences being the apparatus around the scholarly publishing arena and the digital publishing arena. This “apparatus” comes down to evaluation, transmittal, ownership, and tone.

Traditional evaluation oversimplified is a mix of peer review, editor discretion, and disciplinary awards. Peer review determines whether a work gets published at all, a problem that does not exist for online works where the barrier to publish is almost non-existent. One of the problems inherent in the firehose of published online works is to “catch the good” as Joan Troyano suggests the Journal of Digital History and DHNow have done.

Another major difference in how peer review works for digital scholarship versus traditional scholarship is who is the peer review group. Instead of anonymous reviewers or editors, many digital projects have gatekeepers that include grant funders and links from other experts. More than in traditional publishing, but less than in popular media, eyeballs are the coin of the digital realm. The most important metric in this regard is time spent on a page rather than pure number of hits. We’re academics, not advertisers after all.

Finally, digital scholarship is occasionally comparable to traditional scholarship in structure. While there are sometimes similar formats- scholarly editions of texts in digital or traditional formats have comparable purposes if different capabilities. Collections of digital objects have some similarities to physical object collections.  But increasingly a digital project looks totally different from articles and monographs. These different structures– born digital narratives, thematic research collections, and interactive scholarly works must also be evaluated differently. We don’t question whether a book’s binding adds to its argument, but we must necessarily question a site’s architecture, UX design, and access.

So far I have primarily focused on the similarities between traditional and digital publishing. Yet there are some square peg aspects of the digital which cannot be forced into the traditional round holes of peer review, scholarly communication, and tenure/promotion. Traditional scholarship prioritizes the single author. Digital environments have always been interdisciplinary and collaborative, with multiple partners bringing their interpretive and technical skills to a project. This makes it difficult to assign credit for particular aspects in the ways which tenure and promotion committees prize (let alone for the Altac scholars who deal in different metrics of career success).

There are many other aspects of digital publishing which differ from traditional publishing- tone, format, and where do you put games?! Yet one of the most difficult and still partly undefined fields concerns copyright. Traditionally scholarly publishing has extensive rules about copyright, citation practice, and attribution (the difficulty of getting photo permissions notwithstanding). The web is a virtual wild west of fair use, open access, and rights statements. These issues are being litigated as we speak with several major legal decisions occurring this week.

Scholars need to think about how they want to publish their scholarly output. The AHA recommends embargoing a dissertation from publication even behind a paywall (ProQuest’s dissertation database). Even when looking for “Open Access” options, there are several varieties from which to choose.  I’ve published a shortened version of my M.A. Thesis freely online at Academia.edu and have been very please with the feedback, hits, and conversation which it garnered. It was a difficult “leap” for me to publish online, but successful. Even in the current format- no cost to me, no cost to readers, I’ve heard valid criticism of Academia.edu as being owned by “venture capitalists.” That it is “Facebook for Academics” might be a bug or a feature, the jury is still out.

Despite the complex landscape of digital publishing that is continually evolving, scholars need to pay just as close attention to evaluation, ownership, and distribution of our work. Without intelligent publication of scholarship, digital history misses one of its defining legs and our research and teaching teeter ever more precariously. We must emphasize the strengths and depths of the digital medium without losing the goals of traditional publishing: transmitting ideas, starting conversations, and earning scholarly reputation.

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