Monthly Archives: September 2008

Tips on Writing a Successful Grant Proposal

The NEH recently announced deadlines for several digital humanities programs, including the NEH Fellowships at Digital Humanities Centers (Sep. 15), Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants. (Oct. 8), and DFG/NEH Joint Digitization Program Deadline (Oct. 15).  So how do you win one of these grants?  I’ve had the honor and privilege (really, I mean it) of serving on several review panels, which has given me insight into what sets apart excellent proposals.  (Nope, I’m not going to say which panels I served on—let’s say if you won a grant, I was on the panel, and if you didn’t, I wasn’t.)

Before serving on a grant review panel, I sort of pictured it as a smoke-filled room where fat-cats chomping on big cigars exercised all their political might to get pet projects funded.  (OK, not really–but it was mysterious.) But the process is nothing like that—no smoke, no posturing, no arm-wringing.  Instead, the NEH brings together 5 or so experts in the field—often directors of digital humanities centers, faculty who have led digital projects, and others who have both subject knowledge in the humanities and expertise in technology– to evaluate the proposals.  Prior to coming to DC to serve on the panel, the panelists review each proposal and make detailed comments, using the grant guidelines as a rubric.  Panelists rank each proposal either as “excellent,” “very good,” “some merit,” or “not recommended for funding.”  Typically I read each proposal three times: first I give all of the proposals a quick read to get a sense of the whole, then I read more slowly to develop a more detailed understanding of each one, and finally I skim as I write up my comments.  The panel itself typically begins with an NEH official explaining the review process, including the conflict of interest rules.  Then panelists discuss each proposal, beginning with the ones rated most highly.  Each panelist provides his or her initial perspective on the proposal, which is followed by an open, respectful debate about its strengths and weaknesses.  Once the discussion is complete, each panelist offers his or her final ranking of the proposal.  I’m fascinated to hear the different perspectives offered by the other panelists; often I am persuaded to change my rankings based on the discussion.  At the end of an exhilarating and exhausting day, the NEH asks panelists for feedback on the proposal guidelines and the review process, demonstrating their commitment to improvement.

Based on my experience as a reviewer, I think I have insight into what makes a strong proposal.  I should say that I’ve never actually received an NEH grant, so take these suggestions with a grain of salt.

  • If you don’t receive a grant, don’t despair. On the panels on which I’ve served, only about 20% of the proposals get funded, which means that some very strong ones just don’t make it.  But you can always reapply, using the reviewers’ comments to strengthen your proposal.
  • Read the Guidelines: Make sure that your proposed project meets the criteria of the grant program.  Would it be better suited for another grant program?  In your narrative, address explicitly how you meet the review criteria–don’t make the reviewers guess.
  • Make an argument for funding your proposal: Don’t just say what you will do, but why it’s important to do it. What impact will your project have on the field, institution, or community?  How?  How is your proposal innovative?  Strong, relevant letters of support can help you make your argument about the proposal’s significance; it’s impressive when leading scholars testify to a project’s importance, but a stack of weak, generic letters can make a proposal seem, well, desperate.
  • Talk to the Program Officers: They’re there to help.  Often they will review a draft proposal prior to submission, provided that you get it to them at least 6 weeks in advance of the grant deadline.  I’m quite impressed by the staff of the Digital Humanities Office: they’re smart, knowledgeable, energetic, all-around good folks, the kind you would trust to lead one of the most visible funding programs in digital humanities.  In the review panels, they focus not on how weak a proposal is, but how they can help the applicant to make it better.
  • Show that you have technical knowledge: Digital humanities projects demand both sophisticated technical and subject knowledge.  Cite the appropriate standards and best practices and explain how you will apply them.
  • Focus. If you attempt to do too much, reviewers will wonder if you can pull it all off, and question what exactly it is you’re trying to do, anyway.
  • Be realistic. It’s always hard to figure out how long a project will take and how much everything will cost.  Talk to others who have done similar work to get a sense of what it will take to pull off your project.  In the work plan, offer a detailed description of what will be accomplished by what deadline and by whom.  Don’t over-promise; remember, if you win the grant, you’ll actually have to do what you said you would do.
  • Sweat the small stuff: Although reviewers focus on the substance of the proposal, a sloppy application can detract from the overall quality.  Proofread carefully to catch grammatical errors.  Think about the design of the document.  If I see huge margins and jumbo fonts, I wonder if the applicant is just trying to fill up space.
  • Ask to see the reviewers’ comments. Whether you’re successful or not, read the reviewers’ comments, which will likely be full of helpful suggestions about how to improve the project and application.  You’re getting free consulting from 5 or more experts in the field—take advantage of it.
  • Consider serving on a grant review panel. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but worth it. You do get a small stipend, but given that it takes about 3-4 hours to review and comment on each proposal and additional time to travel to DC and serve on the panel, the hourly pay probably works out to about $5 or $6.  But you get to serve the community, spend the day with smart colleagues talking about stuff that matters, and learn about what new ideas and projects are bubbling up.  Perhaps most importantly, I think I now have a better sense of what it takes to write strong application.   As a bonus, sometimes you get your very own plate of chocolate—including Special Dark!–for an afternoon boost.

For a detailed, inside-the-NEH perspective on writing successful applications, see Meredith Hindley’s How to Get a Grant from NEH:  A public service message.
Good luck!


Is Wikipedia Becoming a Respectable Academic Source?

Last year a colleague in the English department described a conversation in which a friend revealed a dirty little secret: “I use Wikipedia all the time for my research—but I certainly wouldn’t cite it.”  This got me wondering: How many humanities and social sciences researchers are discussing, using, and citing Wikipedia?  To find out, I searched Project Muse and JSTOR, leading electronic journal collections for the humanities and social sciences, for the term “wikipedia,” which picked up both references to Wikipedia and citations of the wikipedia URL.  I retrieved 167 results from between 2002 and 2008, all but 8 of which came from Project Muse.  (JSTOR covers more journals and a wider range of disciplines but does not provide access to issues published in the last 3-5 years.)  In contrast, Project Muse lists 149 results in a search for “Encyclopedia Britannica” between 2002 and 2008, and JSTOR lists 3.  I found that citations of Wikipedia have been increasing steadily: from 1 in 2002 (not surprisingly, by Yochai Benkler) to 17 in 2005 to 56 in 2007. So far Wikipedia has been cited 52 times in 2008, and it’s only August.

Along with the increasing number of citations, another indicator that Wikipedia may be gaining respectability is its citation by well-known scholars.  Indeed, several scholars both cite Wikipedia and are themselves subjects of Wikipedia entries, including Gayatri Spivak, Yochai Benkler, Hal Varian, Henry Jenkins, Jerome McGann, Lawrence Buell, and Donna Haraway.

111 of the sources (66.5%) are what I call “straight citations”—citations of Wikipedia without commentary about it–while 56 (34.5%) comment on Wikipedia as a source, either positively or negatively.  14.5% of the total citations come from literary studies, 14% from cultural studies, 11.4% from history, and 6.6% from law. Researchers cite Wikipedia on a diversity of topics, ranging from the military-industrial complex to horror films to Bush’s second state of the union speech.  8 use Wikipedia simply as a source for images (such as an advertisement for Yummy Mummy cereal or a diagram of the architecture of the Internet).  Many employ Wikipedia either as a source for information about contemporary culture or as a reflection of contemporary cultural opinion.  For instance, to illustrate how novels such as The Scarlet Letter and Uncle Tom’s Cabin have been sanctified as “Great American Novels,” Lawrence Buell cites the Wikipedia entry on “Great American Novel”(Buell).

About a third of the articles I looked at discuss the significance of Wikipedia itself.  14 (8%) criticize using it in research.  For instance, a reviewer of a biography about Robert E. Lee tsks-tsks:

The only curiosities are several references to Wikipedia for information that could (and should) have been easily obtained elsewhere (battle casualties, for example). Hopefully this does not portend a trend toward normalizing this unreliable source, the very thing Pryor decries in others’ work. (Margolies).

In contrast, 11 (6.6%) cite Wikipedia as a model for participatory culture.  For example:

The rise of the net offers a solution to the major impediment in the growth and complexification of the gift economy, that network of relationships where people come together to pursue public values. Wikipedia is one example.(DiZerega)

A few (1.8%) cite Wikipedia self-consciously, aware of its limitations but asserting its relevance for their particular project:

Citing Wikipedia is always dicey, but it is possible to cite a specific version of an entry. Start with the link here, because cybervandals have deleted the list on at least one occasion. For a reputable “permanent version” of “Alternative press (U.S. political right)” see: (Berlet).

Of course, just because more researchers—including some prominent ones—are citing Wikipedia does not mean it’s necessarily a valid source for academic papers.  However, you can begin to see academic norms shifting as more scholars find useful information in Wikipedia and begin to cite it.  As Christine Borgman notes, “Scholarly documents achieve trustworthiness through a social process to assure readers that the document satisfies the quality norms of the field” (Borgman 84).  As a possible sign of academic norms changing in some disciplines, several journals, particularly those focused on contemporary culture, include 3 or more articles that reference Wikipedia: Advertising and Society Review (7 citations), American Quarterly (3 citations), College Literature (3 citations), Computer Music Journal (5 citations), Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies (3 citations), Leonardo (8 citations), Library Trends (5 citations), Mediterranean Quarterly (3 citations), and Technology and Culture (3 citations).

So can Wikipedia be a reputable scholarly resource?  I typically see four main criticisms of Wikipedia:

1) Research projects shouldn’t rely upon encyclopedias. Even Jimmy Wales, (co?-)founder of Wikipedia, acknowledges “I still would say that an encyclopedia is just not the kind of thing you would reference as a source in an academic paper. Particularly not an encyclopedia that could change instantly and not have a final vetting process” (Young).  But an encyclopedia can be a valid starting point for research.  Indeed, The Craft of Research, a classic guide to research, advises that researchers consult reference works such as encyclopedias to gain general knowledge about a topic and discover related works (80).  Wikipedia covers topics often left out of traditional reference works, such as contemporary culture and technology.  Most if not all of the works I looked at used Wikipedia to offer a particular piece of background information, not as a foundation for their argument.

2) Since Wikipedia is constantly undergoing revisions, it is too unstable to cite; what you read and verified today might be gone tomorrow–or even in an hour.  True, but Wikipedia is developing the ability for a particular version of an entry to be vetted by experts and then frozen, so researchers could cite an authoritative, unchanging version (Young).  As the above citation from Berlet indicates, you can already provide a link to a specific version of an article.

3) You can’t trust Wikipedia because anyone—including folks with no expertise, strong biases, or malicious (or silly) intent—can contribute to it anonymously.  Yes, but through the back and forth between “passionate amateurs,” experts, and Wikipedia guardians protecting against vandals, good stuff often emerges. As Nicholson Baker, who has himself edited Wikipedia articles on topics such as the Brooklyn Heights and the painter Emma Fordyce MacRae, notes in a delightful essay about Wikipedia, “Wikipedia was the point of convergence for the self-taught and the expensively educated. The cranks had to consort with the mainstreamers and hash it all out” (Baker).  As Roy Rosenzweig found in a detailed analysis of Wikipedia’s appropriateness for historical research, the quality of the collaboratively-produced Wikipedia entries can be uneven: certain topics are covered in greater detail than others, and the writing can have the choppy, flat quality of something composed by committee.  But Rosenzweig also concluded that Wikipedia compares favorably with Encarta and Encyclopedia Britannica for accuracy and coverage.

4) Wikipedia entries lack authority because there’s no peer review. Well, depends on how you define “peer review.”  Granted, Wikipedia articles aren’t reviewed by two or three (typically anonymous) experts in the field, so they may lack the scholarly authority of an article published in an academic journal.  However, articles in Wikipedia can be reviewed and corrected by the entire community, including experts, knowledgeable amateurs, and others devoted to Wikipedia’s mission to develop, collect and disseminate educational content (as well as by vandals and fools, I’ll acknowledge).  Wikipedia entries aim to achieve what Wikipedians call “verifiability”; the article about Barack Obama, for instance, has as many footnotes as a law review article–171 at last count (August 31), including several from this week.

Now I’m certainly not saying that Wikipedia is always a good source for an academic work–there is some dreck in it, as in other sources.  Ultimately, I think Wikipedia’s appropriateness as an academic source depends on what is being cited and for what purpose.   Alan Liu offers students a sensible set of guidelines for the appropriate use of Wikipedia, noting that it, like other encyclopedias, can be a good starting point, but that it is “currently an uneven resource” and always in flux.  Instead of condemning Wikipedia outright, professors should help students develop what Henry Jenkins calls “new media literacies.”  By examining the history and discussion pages associated with each article, for instance, students can gain insight into how knowledge is created and how to evaluate a source.  As John Seely Brown and Richard Adler write:

The openness of Wikipedia is instructive in another way: by clicking on tabs that appear on every page, a user can easily review the history of any article as well as contributors’ ongoing discussion of and sometimes fierce debates around its content, which offer useful insights into the practices and standards of the community that is responsible for creating that entry in Wikipedia. (In some cases, Wikipedia articles start with initial contributions by passionate amateurs, followed by contributions from professional scholars/researchers who weigh in on the “final” versions. Here is where the contested part of the material becomes most usefully evident.) In this open environment, both the content and the process by which it is created are equally visible, thereby enabling a new kind of critical reading—almost a new form of literacy—that invites the reader to join in the consideration of what information is reliable and/or important.(Brown & Adler)

OK, maybe Wikipedia can be a legitimate source for student research papers–and furnish a way to teach research skills.  But should it be cited in scholarly publications?  In “A Note on Wikipedia as a Scholarly Source of Record,” part of the preface to Mechanisms, Matt Kirschenbaum offers a compelling explanation of why he cited Wikipedia, particularly when discussing technical documentation:

Information technology is among the most reliable content domains on Wikipedia, given the high interest of such topics Wikipedia’s readership and the consequent scrutiny they tend to attract.   Moreover, the ability to examine page histories on Wikipedia allows a user to recover the editorial record of a particular entry… Attention to these editorial histories can help users exercise sound judgment as to whether or not the information before them at any given moment is controversial, and I have availed myself of that functionality when deciding whether or not to rely on Wikipedia.(Kirschenbaum xvii)

With Wikipedia, as with other sources, scholars should use critical judgment in analyzing its reliability and appropriateness for citation.  If scholars carefully evaluate a Wikipedia article’s accuracy, I don’t think there should be any shame in citing it.

For more information, review the Zotero report detailing all of the works citing Wikipedia, or take a look at a spreadsheet of basic bibliographic information. I’d be happy to share my bibliographic data with anyone who is interested.

Works Cited

Baker, Nicholson. “The Charms of Wikipedia.” The New York Review of Books 55.4 (2008). 30 Aug 2008 <;.

Berlet, Chip. “The Write Stuff: U. S. Serial Print Culture from Conservatives out to Neonazis.” Library Trends 56.3 (2008): 570-600. 24 Aug 2008 <;.

Booth, Wayne C, and Colomb, Gregory G. The Craft of Research. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Borgman, Christine L. Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet. Cambridge, Mass., 2007.

Brown, John Seely, and Richard P. Adler. “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0 .” EDUCAUSE Review 43.1 (2008): 16-32. 29 Aug 2008 <;.

Buell, Lawrence. “The Unkillable Dream of the Great American Novel: Moby-Dick as Test Case.” American Literary History 20.1 (2008): 132-155. 24 Aug 2008 <;.

Dee, Jonathan. “All the News That’s Fit to Print Out.” The New York Times 1 Jul 2007. 30 Aug 2008 <;.

DiZerega, Gus. “Civil Society, Philanthropy, and Institutions of Care.” The Good Society 15.1 (2006): 43-50. 24 Aug 2008 <;.

Jenkins, Henry. “What Wikipedia Can Teach Us About the New Media Literacies (Part One).” Confessions of an Aca/Fan 26 Jun 2007. 30 Aug 2008 <;.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms : new media and the forensic imagination. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008).

Liu, Alan. “Student Wikipedia Use Policy.” 1 Apr 2007. 30 Aug 2008 <;.

Margolies, Daniel S. “Robert E. Lee: Heroic, But Not the Polio Vaccine.” Reviews in American History 35.3 (2007): 385-392. 25 Aug 2008 <;.

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.” The Journal of American History Volume 93, Number 1 (June, 2006): 117-46.  Available at

Young, Jeffrey. “Wikipedia’s Co-Founder Wants to Make It More Useful to Academe.” Chronicle of Higher Education 13 Jun 2008. 28 Aug 2008 <;.