Signs that social scholarship is catching on in the humanities

To what extent are humanities researchers practicing “social scholarship”—embracing openness, accessibility and collaboration in producing their work? In defining the characteristics of the humanities cyberinfrastructure, the report of the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure recommends that it should be “accessible” and “facilitate collaboration.” At the same time, the report contends that solitary scholarship is the norm in the humanities: “Despite the demonstrated value of collaboration in the sciences, there are relatively few formal digital communities and relatively few institutional platforms for online collaboration in the humanities. In these disciplines, single-author work continues to dominate.” Recently, however, I’ve observed several trends that suggest increasing experimentation with collaborative tools and approaches in the humanities:

1) Individual commitment by scholars to open access
Recently several prominent humanities scholars have voiced strong support for open access publishing. For instance, Nick Montfort has stated that he will no longer review articles for non-open access journals. Likewise, dannah boyd has declared that she will no longer publish in journals where content is not freely available and that “scholars have a responsibility to make their work available as a public good.” As part of a forum on open access in Anthropology News, Chris Kelty articulated his reluctance to peer-review articles “for a multinational corporation with shareholders and an enormous profit margin” when he isn’t compensated for his labor. Such declarations are increasing awareness of open access and stirring up an important debate about whether it is feasible and desirable. By making publications freely available online, scholars reach a larger audience, serve the fundamental scholarly mission to advance public knowledge, and make their own work more visible. Of course, there are significant economic and cultural obstacles to open access, obstacles that I will look at in my next post.

2) Development of open access publishing outlets
The commitment to publish only in open access journals won’t go very far if there aren’t appropriate forums for this scholarship (unless authors choose to self-publish their work). Already the Directory of Open Access Journals lists 554 humanities journals, including Digital Humanities Quarterly, Transformations, African Studies Quarterly, Southern Spaces, and Bryn Mawr Classical Review Yet some open access journals struggle with the lack of resources and, perhaps more significantly, the lack of contributors. According to Sigi Jottkandt and Gary Hall, leaders of the new Open Humanities Press, the most significant obstacle “is still the general perception by our colleagues that open access publication is not as academically rigorous as traditional print-based journals and books” (http www.driver-repository.be/media/docs/OHPBrussels13-2-07.pdf). To tackle the perception that open access journals are somehow less scholarly, the Open Humanities Press emphasizes the prestige of its editorial board, which includes Stephen Greenblatt, N. Katherine Hayles, Jerome McGann, Peter Suber, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The Open Humanities Press aims to develop open access humanities journals in critical theory, construct a research gateway, and publish foundational books on critical theory that are in the public domain, taking as it main values access, scholarship, diversity and transparency. Academic and commercial publishers are likewise experimenting with open access publishing models. For instance, the University of Michigan Press and the University of Michigan Library are collaborating on the digitalculturebooks imprint, which makes digital versions of works freely available. The MIT Press is publishing Information Technologies and International Development as an open access journal and is providing free online access to the MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning thanks to the support of the MacArthur Foundation. Hindawi Publishing Corporation, a commercial press focused on science and engineering, now publishes all of its journals as open access under a model where authors cover publication costs.

3) Availability of tools to support collaboration
To encourage humanities scholars to work together on complex research problems, share data and references, and jointly author documents, they need tools that make the whole process easy. Web 2.0 is a notoriously squishy term, but for me it is fundamentally about enabling participation and collaboration. We could list dozens of different collaborative tools, such as blogs, wikis, collaborative bookmarking, social networking, collaborative authoring, social tagging, visualization, mashups, etc. In the digital humanities domain, a number of tools are under development that facilitate collaboration. For example, Stan Katz hails the recent partnership between the Center for the New Media and History and the Internet Archive to enable humanities scholars to collaborate by uploading their research notes and collections to the Internet Archive using Zotero. SEASR is a software environment for data analysis that will “empower collaboration among scholars.”

4) Experiments with social peer review
While the traditional peer-review process includes only a few often anonymous reviewers, new approaches to peer review engage a larger community in evaluation and leverage collaborative bookmarking and social tagging applications to determine the impact of a work. For example, in preparing his book Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies for publication, Noah Wardruip-Fruin is pursuing two methods of peer-review: the traditional process, through MIT Press, and blog-based peer review. He’s posting the book in sections to Grand Text Auto and using CommentPress to engage in a conversation with readers. In reading over Wardruip-Fruin’s meta-reflections on blog-based peer review, I was struck by his observation that getting feedback from multiple reviewers helps him to figure out whether something just bothered one reader or is a deeper problem: “the blog-based review form not only brings in more voices (which may identify more potential issues), and not only provides some ‘review of the reviews’ (with reviewers weighing in on the issues raised by others), but is also, crucially, a conversation (my proposals for a quick fix to the discussion of one example helped unearth the breadth and seriousness of the larger issues with the section).” For Wardruip-Fruin, the “social process” produces comments that he trusts more, since they emerge from community dialogue. Some have criticized this approach, arguing that removing anonymity means that comments aren’t as honest and that opening up the review process dilutes its authority, but it seems to me that blog-based peer review resembles an online writing workshop—you hear from multiple readers and get a sense of how your argument is playing out.

5) Development of social networks to support open exchanges of knowledge
Social networking sites provide key organizational and communication tools for a community, whether it be focused around a particular field or spans the disciplines. As HASTAC’s name (the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) suggests, it fosters collaboration focused on innovative, interdisciplinary uses of technology by coordinating a network of research centers, sharing information, cultivating community, overseeing funding programs such as the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Competition, and more. NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship) is developing a platform for collaboration (Collex), a network of nineteenth-century scholars, mechanisms for peer review of digital scholarship, and training programs for scholars working on digital projects.

6) Support for collaboration by funding agencies
Funding agencies are emphasizing collaboration in many of their programs. If you look at the tag cloud for the recently-announced winners of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning competition, “collaboration” stands out as the most frequently used term, applied to projects that, for instance, “connect young African social entrepreneurs with young North American professionals,” enable young people to work together on Do It Yourself science projects, or engage high school students in Los Angeles and Cairo in an environmental studies game. Similarly, the NEH/IMLS Digital Partnership program focuses on “innovative, collaborative humanities projects,” encouraging libraries, museums, and scholars to work together to advance public knowledge.

7) More broadly, universities are emphasizing community as key part of graduate education.
The Carnegie Foundation’s The Formation of Scholars: Re-thinking Doctoral Education for the Twenty-First Century argues that graduate programs must create intellectual community to engage graduate students in the work of the department and discipline, retain them, and promote innovative thinking. Perhaps digital humanities projects exemplify the benefits of collaborative approaches to scholarship, since it’s difficult for a solo scholar to pull off the typical digital humanities project. I was motivated to complete my PhD in large part because of the communities that I participated in, particularly my dissertation group and the Electronic Text Center. It seemed that the happiest graduate students in my program were those working on digital humanities projects, which allowed us to collaborate with senior scholars and fellow graduate students, learn new skills, and do work that had immediate benefit for researchers and, often, the general public.

Other examples of social scholarship’s emergence include the growth of blogging and the use of collaborative bibliographic tools such as citeulike (which includes 500 items that are tagged “humanities“). Despite these signs that social scholarship is beginning to gain traction in the humanities, significant obstacles remain, obstacles that I will discuss in my next post.

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5 responses to “Signs that social scholarship is catching on in the humanities

  1. Pingback: New Models of Social Research in the Humanities? « Humanities Computing and Media Centre

  2. Pingback: The Leisurely Historian… » Blog Archive » The Great LJ Strike of 2008(?)

  3. Pingback: Obstacles to social scholarship « Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

  4. Pingback: Digital Humanities in 2008, II: Scholarly Communication & Open Access « Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

  5. Pingback: Las humanidades digitales en 2008 (2) « Clionauta: Blog de Historia

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