historian, author, film producer

Tag: digital scholarship (page 1 of 1)

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.

Writing History in the Digital Age

Last week our graduate class in digital humanities participated in the University of Michigan Press’s open review of Writing History in the Digital Age. I asked the students to post a 1,000 word overview comment on one of the essays in the collection (or alternatively a shorter comment on two essays), and to reflect on their experience. The most common initial response among the students to their participation in this open review was trepidation, intimidation even. After reflection, however, students expressed admiration for some aspects of this process. I will be quoting anonymously from students’s reflections on this experience.

One student noted that their assignment came during Open Access Week, an event he had been anticipating for weeks and promoting “its values without actually practicing it or contributing to it in any tangible way.” Writing History in the Digital Age allowed him to stop “talking OA and start doing OA.”

Students too were concerned at first about voicing their views in the open review and that they would be immediately visible. This was “both exciting and nerve-racking” but it also led to a sense of “pride and purpose.” What they said and wrote mattered to the profession, to the field, to one another, to colleagues in a way that it had not before.

It gradually became obvious to these students that their contributions were as meaningful as others, that their “fumbling through digital history” was no less worthy than others. One student wrote that “in reading through the essays, I realized that many people are asking the same questions I am and that perhaps that always feeling you are one step behind is just as aspect of the Digital Humanities since technology and methods are constantly changing.” Authors and editors might find that certain paragraphs generate “hot spots” in an open review, becoming highly influential or places where the argument is extended in important new direction. One could look through the whole collection, and instead of considering which essay might not be worthy of inclusion and cut, one could see the different “hot spots” and make connections more readily across them. Open review could lead to a more purposeful method of “reading” as well as different forms of writing and review.

Not all students appreciated the way this instance of open review seemed to work, however, and some had broad concerns about what exactly constituted “open peer review.” One student reviewed an essay “riddled with misspellings” that was centered “on a provocative but unsubstantiated claim.” But how to say so? Students were legitimately concerned about whether they could or should be so openly critical. And what did it say about a digital publication trying to gain “acceptance in a print culture” when there were so many errors? Another student questioned who really was a “peer” and whether this open review was less substantive than traditional peer review. “It was difficult to escape the feeling,” she wrote, “that I was writing a post rather than a review.” She pointed out that the Writing in the Digital Age uses the word “comment” to categorize these open contributions. What is a comment? and is it the same thing as a review written in double-blind peer review?

Still, the merits of open review inspired some of us. Students appreciated “the transparent process” and saw that the format prompted “more discussion.” Indeed, rather than a “mysterious black box” approach, the open review brought in a wide range of participants. One student reflected that “I’ve inserted myself into the broader process of writing and creating this volume of essays.”

One more thought. My own view of this process is very positive after listening to my students. I think we need more open review not less, more substantive engagement with scholarship before publication than after, and more willingness to allow experimental ideas and approaches not less. There is an additional benefit to open review–our students learn how to do peer review in an open rather than a closed environment. In fact, this was one of the most striking problems the class faced–they did not know how to do a review: should they make grammatical corrections, should they be critical, . . . When we close off the review process in pre-publication, we keep mysterious a central scholarly function. Students then learn how to peer review based largely on their experience with their own publications. Many others have written about these issues, most notably Kathleen Fitzpatrick in Planned Obsolescence. After the 2003 American Historical Review digital article I wrote with Ed Ayers, I tried to summarize some of the issues we faced with blind peer review in “Writing a Digital Journal Article from Scratch: An Account.”

There are numerous reasons open review makes sense, even if we still need to work on definitions and best practices. Our current model of pre-publication “behind the curtain” review and post-publication open review or criticism seems designed to limit, even punish, innovation and creativity. Our students have much to learn about the culture of review–let’s teach them in an open environment.