Social Scholarship in the Humanities

Scholarship seems to be getting more visibly social. According to Laura Cohen, social scholarship is “the practice of scholarship in which the use of social tools is an integral part of the research and publishing process.” Social scholars may blog, share bookmarks, data and other resources, participate in social networks, make their works-in-progress available for review, and deposit their publications in open access repositories. A recent Scientific American article points out some of the benefits of “open source” science. At social networking sites such as OpenWetWare, which recently received a substantial NSF grant to develop social software for scientists, biologists and bioengineers share research protocols and syllabi, blog the research process, post profiles of their research groups, and find collaborators. As a result, collective wisdom is documented and passed down, failures as well as successes are made visible, lab managers can more easily track ongoing research, and researchers can get quick feedback on their work from colleagues around the world. Open Source Science seems especially appropriate for researchers searching for cures to diseases common in developing nations but of little interest to big pharmaceutical companies, since such openness can facilitate more rapid discoveries and is not constrained by the quest for patents. With Harvard’s recent adoption of an open access policy and the NIH mandate that research publications it funds be deposited in PubMed Central, social scholarship appears to be gaining momentum. To what extent are the humanities part of this movement?

Typically humanists are cast as the loners of academia, brooding over books in solitude. True, rarely do you see humanities scholars jointly authoring works, although they often collaborate to edit essay collections and journals and organize conferences and workshops. Unlike the sciences, where joint authorship is expected, many tenure committees haven’t yet figured out how to assign credit for collaborative work in the humanities. Yet you can glance at the acknowledgments in any humanities monograph and find ample evidence for the social context out of which scholarship emerges—the friends and colleagues who suggested references and read multiple drafts, the anonymous peer reviewers who provided feedback, the conference attendees and students who served as sounding boards, the assistants who offered research support, the librarians and archivists who tracked down sources, the funders who helped pay for research trips, the partners who put up with it all. Reversing the typical image of scientists as collaborators and humanists as loners, Sayeed Choudhury and Timothy Stinson point out in The Virtual Observatory and the Roman de la Rose: Unexpected Relationships and the Collaborative Imperative that in the “data-poor” environments of the early modern era scientists were reluctant to share information, whereas medieval manuscripts provide ample evidence of humanists working together to write, copy, annotate, illustrate, and disseminate texts. As Choudhury and Stinson suggest, “Perhaps it is not a set of inherent characteristics within specific disciplines that defines their mode of scholarship or communication, but rather the relative ease or difficulty with which practitioners of those disciplines can generate, acquire or process data.” Does scarcity produce secrecy, abundance openness? Information housed in archives remains a scarce resource for humanities scholars, but mass digitization efforts are making other forms of humanities data widely available. Will humanities scholars work together to mine and make sense of this information? In my next posts, I’ll look at some trends indicating that humanities scholars are beginning to embrace social scholarship, as well as discuss some obstacles.

2 responses to “Social Scholarship in the Humanities

  1. Pingback: Signs that social scholarship is catching on in the humanities « Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

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

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