Doing Digital Scholarship

Here is a description of my research project, which I submitted as a paper proposal for Digital Humanities 2008:

Doing Digital Scholarship


When I completed my dissertation
Bachelors of Arts: Bachelorhood and the Construction of Literary Identity in Antebellum America in 2002, I figured that I was ahead of most of my peers in my use of digital resources, but I made no pretense of doing digital scholarship. I plumbed electronic text collections such as The Making of America and Early American Fiction for references to bachelorhood, and I used simple text analysis tools to count the number of times words such as “bachelor” appeared in key texts. I even built an online critical edition of a section from Reveries of a Bachelor (http://etext.virginia.edu/users/spiro/Contents2.html), one of the central texts of sentimental bachelorhood. But in my determination to finish my PhD before gathering too many more gray hairs, I resisted the impulse to use more sophisticated analytical tools or to publish my dissertation online.

Five years later, the possibilities for digital scholarship in the humanities have grown. Projects such as TAPOR, Token-X, and MONK are constructing sophisticated tools for text analysis and visualization. Massive text digitization projects such as Google Books and the Open Content Alliance are making it possible to search thousands of books. NINES and other initiatives are building communities of digital humanities scholars, portals to content, and mechanisms for conducting peer review of digital scholarship. To encourage digital scholarship, the NEH recently launched a digital humanities program. Meanwhile, scholars are blogging, putting up videos on YouTube, and using Web 2.0 tools to collaborate.

Despite this growth, there are still too few examples of innovative digital scholarship that employ “digital collections and analytical tools to generate new intellectual products” (ACLS 7). As reports such as A Kaleidoscope of American Literature and Our Cultural Commonwealth suggest, the paucity of digital scholarship results from the lack of appropriate tools, technical skills, funding, and recognition. In a study of Dickinson, Whitman and Uncle Tom’s Cabin scholars, my colleague Jane Segal and I found that although scholars are increasingly using digital resources in their research, they are essentially employing them to make traditional research practices more efficient and explore questions opened up by access to resources such as all of the editions of Whitman’s poetry or film versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not (yet) to transform their research methodology by employing new tools and processes. Although we recognize the potential of digital scholarship, we have an incomplete understanding of what forms it can take and what is required to produce it. What does it mean to do humanities research in a Web 2.0 world? To what extent do existing tools, resources, and research methods support digital scholarship, and what else do scholars need?

To investigate these questions, I am revisiting my dissertation to re-imagine and re-mix it as digital scholarship. I aim not only to open up new insights into my primary research area–the significance of bachelorhood in nineteenth-century American culture–but also to document and analyze emerging methods for conducting research in a digital environment. I am structuring my research based on what John Unsworth calls the “scholarly primitives,” or core research practices in the humanities:

1. Discovering: I am conducting detailed searches of a wide range of both open access and subscription-based databases and web sites, documenting in a freely-available Google Spreadsheet (http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=pAlYM7vZmTy_U6JhpvPAXFA) what searches and databases yield the best results and what gaps in digital resources persist. I am also noting how easy it is to retrieve, organize and analyze information provided in these databases.

2. Annotating: In the past, I kept research notes in long, unwieldy Word documents, which made it hard to find information that I needed. New software such as Zotero enables researchers to store copies of the digital resources and to make annotations as part of the metadata record or even on the web page itself. What effect does the ability to share and annotate resources have on research practices? How useful is tagging as a mechanism for organizing information?

3. Comparing: Through text analysis and collation software such as Juxta and TAPOR, scholars can compare different versions of texts and detect patterns. Likewise, the Virtual Lightbox allows researchers to compare and manipulate digital images. What kind of new insights can be generated by using these tools? In the course of doing my research, I am testing freely available tools and evaluating their usefulness for my project.

4. Referring: With hypertext, we can not only refer to prior work, but link to it, even embed it. What is the best means for constructing a scholarly apparatus in digital scholarship, particularly in a work focused not only on making an argument, but also on examining the process that shaped that argument?

5. Sampling: With so much information available, what criteria should we use to determine what to focus on? Since not everything is digitized and search engines can be blunt instruments, what do we ignore by relying mainly on digital resources? How can text mining tools help us to locate and understand relevant resources? I am documenting the selection criteria used to produce the arguments in my revamped dissertation.

6. Illustrating: What kind of evidence do we use to build an argument in a work of digital scholarship, and how is that evidence presented? In my dissertation, I generalized about the significance of bachelorhood in American literature by performing close readings of a few key texts, but such a method was admittedly unsystematic. By using text analysis tools across a much larger sample of primary texts, I can cite statistics and present visualizations in making my argument–but does this make my argument any more convincing?

7. Representing: How should a work of digital scholarship be presented? Ideally readers would be able to examine the evidence for themselves and even perform their own queries. At the same time, information must be offered in a way that is clear and consistent with familiar academic discourse. How should I make available not only research conclusions, but also the detailed research process that undergirds these conclusions–the successful and unsuccessful searches, the queries run in text analysis software, the insights offered by collaborators? How will the digital work compare to the more traditional original dissertation? What kind of tools will be used to author the work, and who will publish it?

In addition to Unsworth’s list, I offer two more:

8. Collaborating: Although humanities scholars are thought to be solitary, they collaborate frequently by exchanging bibliographic references and drafts of their essays. How do I engage the community in my research I am encouraging others to comment on my (re-) work in progress (http://digitalhumanities.edublogs.org/) using the Comment Press software. Moreover, I am bookmarking all web-based sources for my study through delicious (http://del.icio.us/lms4w/SpiroDigitalScholarship). I have also launched a blog where I explore issues and ideas raised by my research (https://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/), and I am examining what it takes to build an audience and how visibility and collaboration affect my research practices.

9. Remixing: What would it mean to take an earlier work–my own dissertation, for example–use new sources and approaches, and present it in a new form? What constitutes a scholarly remix, and what are the implications for intellectual property and academic ethics? I also plan to experiment with mashups as a means of generating and presenting new insights, such as a Google Map plotting census statistics about antebellum bachelors or a visual mashup of images of bachelors.

This project examines the process of doing research digitally, the capabilities and limits of existing tools and resources, and the best means of authoring, representing and disseminating digital scholarship. I aim to make this process as open, visible, and collaborative as possible. My approach is informed by the Visible Knowledge Project, which calls for teachers to be reflective in examining the impact of technology on their own teaching (http://crossroads.georgetown.edu/vkp/index.htm), as well as by studies of scholars’ research practices such as Scholarly Work in the Humanities and the Evolving Information Environment. I hope my research will yield insights about how to best serve scholars as well as a potential model for digital scholarship in the humanities.

Works Cited

American Council of Learned Societies. Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences. New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 2006.

Brockman, William, Laura Neumann, Carole Palmer, and Tanya Tidline. Scholarly Work in the Humanities and the Evolving Information Environment. Washington D.C.: Digital Library Federation. 2001. 15 May 2007 <http://www.clir.org/PUBS/reports/pub104/pub104.pdf>.

Brogan, Martha. A Kaleidoscope of Digital American Literature. Digital Library Federation. 2005. 22 May 2007 <http://www.diglib.org/pubs/dlf104/&gt;.

Unsworth, John. “Scholarly Primitives: what methods do humanities researchers have in common, and how might our tools reflect this?’ 13 May 2000. 20 November 2007. <http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/~jmu2m/Kings.5-00/primitives.html>

3 responses to “Doing Digital Scholarship

  1. Lisa — I found your blog via Dan Cohen’s blog. Looks great. I enjoyed your discussion on ‘Doing Digital Scholarship’ and look forward to future posts.

  2. Hey Lisa! Great to see you in blogland–

  3. What an ambitious project! As a beginning Ph.D. student (information studies), I have been thinking about how I would present my dissertation research , as much as about what it might be. Your description is like a blueprint for how to approach it. I would imagine that Unsworth’s approach would work for social science research as well as for humanities research, but then, I’m very new to all of this and don’t really have much of a handle on it yet.

    I look forward to hearing more about your project and will check out the resources you link to above.

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