What is Digital Scholarship? A Typology

At a recent talk at the University of Colorado Boulder I discussed various definitions of digital scholarship and how we might categorize digital scholarship. My forthcoming essay in the second edition of Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities deals with these questions in depth. This chart offers one way to consider a typology for digital scholarship in the humanities. These characteristics are offered as a beginning point. They are not meant to exclude or restrict the definition of digital scholarship. Indeed, I hope these definitions might provoke some further discussion about how to undertake reviews of digital scholarship.

Here is a a proposed typology of digital scholarship as a PDF.

Some definitions are necessary as well.

Assessing the types of data, components, organization, scope, interpretive nature, and character of digital works allows us to separate one category from another. An ISW, for example, differs from a Thematic Research Collection not only because its scope is more tightly defined, but also because its interpretive nature lies in the query structures it provides the reader rather than in the encoded affordances that a Thematic Research Collection builds into its archival materials. The ISW operates around a series of procedural inquiries, whereas the Thematic Research Collection offers open-ended investigatory structures. These characteristics of the categories are not meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative, and as a basis for categorization and review.

Interactive Scholarly Works (ISWs):

These works are hybrids of archival materials and tool components, and are situated around a historiographically significant or critical concern. These works often assert a methodological argument as well, demonstrating that the combination of tools and materials serves as a method worthy of applying to the problem. Interactive Scholarly Works have a limited set of relatively homogenous data, and they might include a textual component on the scale of a brief academic journal article. They feature an API for users to access the data and programming directly. Relatively tightly defined in subject, ISWs provide users with a high degree of interactivity in a limited framework. (Meeks and Grossner 2012)

Digital Projects or Thematic Research Collections (TRCs):

Digital projects, sometimes referred to as Thematic Research Collections, are perhaps the most well defined genre in digital humanities scholarship. Carole L. Palmer’s 2004 review of these works emphasized several qualities, such as their heterogeneous datatypes, structured but open ended, designed to support research, multi-authored, primary sources. Combining tools and archival materials framed around a historiographically significant or critical problem, these projects are sprawling investigations into a major problem. Typically gathering thousands of objects and records from widely varying institutions and in widely varying formats, digital history projects contain “digital aggregations” of primary sources that support research on a particular theme or historical question. Scholars embed interpretive affordances in the collection and use these affordances to open up new modes of inquiry and/or discovery. They are open-ended projects and often support ongoing research by multiple scholars or teams. Often traditional peer reviewed scholarship is derived from the thematic research collection. The next phase of thematic research collections might feature interpretive scholarship embedded within and in relationship to the collection. (Palmer, 2004)

Digital Narratives:

These scholarly works are born-digital, and they primarily feature a work of scholarly interpretation or argument embedded within layers of evidence and citation. They do not and presumably cannot exist in analog fashion. They may be multimodal, multi-authored, and user-directed. They may change between and among readings, either through updates or algorithmic reconstitutions. Unlike the first generation of “eBooks” which transferred analog books into digital formats, these nonlinear, multimodal narratives offer explicit hypertext structures. These works primarily provide multiple points of entry for readers and situate evidence and interpretation in ways that allow readers to unpack the scholarly work. They are highly configured, deeply structured, and strongly interpretive pieces of scholarship. They could be stand alone self-generating web sites, cloud applications, or they could be presented in a media-rich scholarly publishing framework such as Scalar.

Simulations constitute a new form for scholarly research and publication as well. Interpretive decisions are embedded at every level in any simulated, textured environment, and feature a range of media products, including video, audio, and 3D models and game engines. Historical simulations and humanities-oriented games possess varying degrees of interpretive strength. Some are purely representational and feature minimal interpretive or argument-driven analysis. Others offer simulated decision-trees in a game-engine environment with heavily interpretive choices. (Coltrain 2013, McGann and Drucker, 2000) Hybrid media objects that combine text, graphics, live action, and animation sequences also constitute what Lev Manovich calls “a new species” in the digital medium and can be evaluated using Murray’s affordance grid as well as the matrix table provided here. (Manovich, 2013) While simulations will likely become in and of themselves a category of digital scholarship with particular characteristics that set them apart from the above types of scholarly work, at this writing they are most commonly used in a supplementary fashion.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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