Category Archives: collaboration

Presentation on How Digital Humanists Use GitHub

At Digital Humanities 2016, Sean Morey Smith and I presented on our ongoing work examining GitHub as a platform of knowledge for digital humanities. Our results are still preliminary, but we want to share our presentation (PDF). We’re especially grateful to those who agreed to be interviewed for the study and who took our survey. We expect to produce an article (or two) based on our research.

We welcome any questions or feedback.

Studying How Digital Humanists Use GitHub

Over the past academic year, I’ve been fortunate to participate in Rice’s Mellon-sponsored Sawyer Seminar on Platforms of Knowledge, where we’ve examined platforms for authoring, annotation, mapping, and social networking. We’ve discussed both the possibilities that platforms may open up for inquiry, public engagement and scholarly communications and the risks that they may pose for privacy and nuanced humanistic analysis. Inspired by the questions raised by the Seminar, my colleague Sean Smith and I are studying a platform used by a number of digital humanists: GitHub. Digital humanists employ GitHub not only for code, but also for writing projects, syllabi, websites, and other scholarly resources. We’ll present our initial findings at Digital Humanities 2016, but I wanted to offer some background to the study, especially since some of you will soon be receiving emails from me inviting you to participate in it.

Initially I was interested in using GitHub for a case study of how we assess and select digital platforms. Even as many researchers (myself included) rely on digital platforms, I haven’t been able to find many clear rubrics for evaluating them. Building on Quinn Dombrowski’s recommendations for choosing a platform for a web project, we are looking at criteria such as functionality and ease of use. In previous work examining archival management systems, I learned how important it is to talk with users about their experience with tools, so we will be conducting a survey and interviews about GitHub. Sean and I also also realized that GitHub itself provides valuable data about how people use GitHub, such as information about collaboration, code re-use, and connections to others. Our study will thus include analysis of publicly available data about selected GitHub users and repositories. (Of course, there is significant prior work on this topic in fields such as social computing that we will draw upon.)

With this project, we are:

  1. Identifying digital humanists who have GitHub accounts. For the purposes of this study, we are looking at presenters at the last three Digital Humanities conferences and people affiliated with organizations that belong to centerNet (assuming that the information is publicly available). Of course, this method is imperfect– it misses digital humanists who didn’t attend the DH conferences or who aren’t affiliated with DH centers, and it may include some people who don’t really consider themselves digital humanists. But it’s a start.
  2. Contacting those whose email addresses are easily retrievable (e.g. available via GitHub) and:
    1. Giving them the opportunity to opt out of having their publicly available GitHub data being included in our analysis and in the dataset that we plan to share at the end of the study. (Added 5/18/16: To be extra careful, we plan to anonymize this dataset.)
    2. Inviting them to take a brief survey about their usage and opinions of GitHub
    3. Inviting them to participate in an interview

    We may also contact people whose emails aren’t in the GitHub data but are otherwise available.

  3. Analyzing GitHub data from our dataset to gain insight into how digital humanists use GitHub.

We want to conduct this study openly while at the same respecting privacy. In conducting interviews for past studies, I’ve been frustrated that I can’t publicly identify and credit people who have made brilliant comments because of the promise of confidentiality.  So we’re giving interviewees the option to make all or some of their interview notes public–but of course they can instead keep the notes private and remain anonymous. Survey data will be anonymized but ultimately shared.

Here are important documents related to our study:

I welcome feedback and questions about this study. I hope that it will contribute to developing criteria for evaluating platforms like GitHub and offer insights into how digital humanities researchers and developers work.

Update on the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium

Organizations in the Boston area, Southern California, and New York City help area digital humanists connect with each other– and now Texas has its own DH group.  The Texas Digital Humanities Consortium (TXDHC) aims to enable Texas digital humanists to share knowledge, learn new skills and methods, and collaborate on research and educational projects. After a terrific first conference hosted by the University of Houston in April of 2014, the second Texas Digital Humanities conference will take place at the University of Texas-Arlington on April 9-11, 2015, with keynotes from Alan Liu, Adeline Koh and George Siemens. (Submit your paper proposal in by January 10.) Thanks to the work of Matt Christy at Texas A&M, the TXDHC website (built on Commons in a Box) allows members to create profiles, set up groups, participate in forums, and more. The TXDHC Steering Committee (which includes me, Jennifer Hecker, Laura Mandell, Rafia Mirza, Charlotte Nunes and Andrew Torget) is shaping the organization and planning upcoming events, including a virtual workshop. The TXDHC’s next online general meeting will take place on Thursday, December 4 from 3-4 p.m. and will include lightning talks by Tanya Clement and Charlotte Nunes, updates on the consortium’s activities, and an opportunity to share announcements and questions.

Interested in participating in the TXDHC? Sign up for the listserv, create an account on the website, and come to a meeting.  TXDHC is an informal, collaborative group; there are no membership fees or bureaucratic structures. Please get in touch with me (lisamspiro[at]gmail[dot]com) if you have questions or suggestions. As a scrappy new organization, TXDHC depends on the energy and ideas of its members.

Creating the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium

TXDHC-logo6At the Inaugural Texas Digital Humanities Consortium Conference (TXDHC) on April 12, Elijah Meeks suggested that “interloping, more than computational approaches or the digital broadly construed as the object of study, defines digital humanities.” Indeed, as researchers pursue their curiosity and explore new methods, they often venture into unfamiliar territory. But there they may find others eager to experiment with new approaches and share what they know (or, as Elijah puts it, “a vibrant community of practice,” such as what we see in neogeography). This open, collaborative ethos characterized the TXDHC conference. Ably organized and hosted by Cameron Buckner from the University of Houston (with co-sponsorship from Rice and Texas A&M), the conference attracted participants from across Texas as well as from California, Alabama, Louisiana, and Switzerland. (See Geoffrey Rockwell’s great conference notes.) I think the conference met its fundamental goal of building community among (and beyond) Texas digital humanists by providing a forum where people could present their work, make connections with fellow interlopers, and learn new skills, such as at the hackfest facilitated by Elijah. By bringing in knowledgeable and engaged keynote speakers, the conference exposed participants to cutting-edge work and enabled them to interact with experts happy to offer advice about projects and pose stimulating questions. Already a colleague from Rice who attended the conference reports that she has made progress on her project thanks to help from Elijah, and I bet others can share similar stories.

The conference functioned as the first event hosted by the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium, a new organization that aims to support collaboration among digital humanists in Texas. The consortium (and conference) emerged from a conversation that Cameron Buckner, Laura Mandell (Texas A&M) and I had in October 2013 in which we discussed the growth of digital humanities across the state and the opportunity to band together in promoting DH research and education. We roped in a few more universities, including the University of Texas, the University of North Texas, St. Edward’s, and the University of Texas at Arlington. But we want to extend the consortium further, to create an open, participatory organization that includes liberal arts colleges, universities, community colleges, libraries, museums, and archives. At the conference, I facilitated a business meeting devoted to organizing the new consortium. While I worried that few people would show up to an 8:30 a.m. meeting on a Saturday, I was impressed by how many came and how engaged they were. We had participants from Southwestern, Prairie View A&M, and the University of Texas at Dallas as well as from Rice, UH, UT Austin, St. Edward’s, and UT Arlington. Since Texas is such a big state, we don’t necessarily have the advantage of close geographical proximity, but we do have a diverse and lively community, exciting research and educational projects, and a desire to do as much as we can together.

In the course of a very productive hour, we developed a framework for the consortium.  We plan to do the following:

  • Establish a Commons in a Box web site where members of the consortium can share information about researchers, projects, events, and opportunities (such as internships). Laura Mandell and her colleagues at Texas A&M’s Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture (IDHMC) generously offered to set up the site. Contact Laura if you would like to be put on the mailing list for the group.
  • Organize a monthly virtual meeting to plan activities, share ongoing research, and build community.
  • Explore creating internship opportunities for graduate students (and potentially undergraduate students as well). Those looking for students to assist with DH projects can write short descriptions of these projects and share them on the TXDHC web site.
  • Host an annual conference. We would like to hold the next TXDHC conference in the spring of 2015, perhaps in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
  • Provide informal opportunities to interact, such as by hosting local reading groups and letting each other know about lectures and other events. Note that Texas A&M will host THATCamp DHCollaborate on May 16-17, 2014.
  • Explore potential advocacy activities.

We encourage others interested in digital humanities from across Texas to join us. Currently the consortium operates as a “coalition of the willing,” with decision making by consensus. There are no membership fees or formal structures; to participate, you just need to indicate interest and be willing to contribute your ideas and time. If you are a Texas digital humanist, please fill out a brief survey to indicate your interest in the consortium and offer input into its activities. Interlopers welcomed!

Group and Method: Collaboration in the Digital Humanities

Yesterday I gave a talk called “Group and Method: Collaboration in the Digital Humanities” at Case Western Reserve University’s Freedman Center Colloquium on “Exploring Collaboration in Digital Scholarship.” Drawing on my research for “Computing and Communicating Knowledge” and for a series of blog posts, I discussed why collaboration is so common in digital humanities (although of course not all DH work is necessarily collaborative); explored the significance of collaboration in projects to build digital resources, devise new research methods, and promote participatory humanities; and explored challenges to collaboration. I also described how my experiences as a grad student in English convinced me of the value of collaboration–particularly my membership in a dissertation group (I was thrilled that my fellow diss group member Amanda French also gave a talk at the colloquium) and my work at Virginia’s Etext Center.

Here is the pdf of the slides.

Opening the Humanities Part 2: Contexts

In 1813, Thomas Jefferson declared in a letter to Isaac McPherson:

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature….”

“Sharing,” by Josh Harper

Unlike, say, a diamond bracelet, an idea can be freely given to others without diminishing its value for the person who “owns” it–indeed, its value only increases as it spreads. While Jefferson believed that the creators of inventions could not claim permanent, natural rights over them, he acknowledged that society could grant the right to profit from them in order to foster innovation (which, as Chris Kelty notes, Jefferson termed the “the embarrassment of an exclusive patent,” suggesting his discomfort). He cautioned that intellectual property rights may actually endanger innovation by granting monopolies, should exist only long enough to spawn innovation, should be governed by rules limiting their application, and should be differentiated according to what benefit they convey to the public (Boyle, The Public Domain).

Jefferson’s letter raises fundamental questions: what social functions do intellectual property rights play? How can we best encourage the sharing of ideas and the progress of knowledge? In this post, the second in my series on the open humanities, I will explore legal and cultural contexts, focusing on the US.

The view that intellectual property rights are granted to encourage innovation is reflected in Article 1, Section 8  of the US Constitution: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Note that that the Constitution describes both the purpose of copyright–”To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”–and places limits upon it. Copyright aims to provide an incentive (a limited monopoly) for creators to share their work so that others may make use of it and build upon it. This incentive is balanced by limits, so that after a period of time the work falls into the public domain. The 1790 Copyright Act set the copyright term at 14 years, with the right to renew for another 14 years. Now, after the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the copyright term has exploded to 70 years after the death of the author. The original intention to encourage the progress of public knowledge seems to have fallen aside in the interest of protecting commercial interests such as Disney’s monopoly over Mickey Mouse.

Expansion of U.S. copyright law (assuming authors create their works 35 years prior to their death) (Wikipedia)

Expansion of U.S. copyright law (assuming authors create their works 35 years prior to their death) (Wikipedia)

With most academic work, the ability to secure a monopoly over one’s ideas is not the primary incentive for sharing. Rather, most academics publish scholarly works in order to make a visible contribution to the scholarly conversation, build their scholarly reputation, and ultimately secure tenure or promotion. Typically researchers do not receive monetary compensation for publishing journal articles; the reward comes in disseminating their research. As Peter Suber suggests, one factor that makes open access more complicated in the humanities is that authors of monographs often expect to receive royalties. However, as Paul Courant points out, the monetary rewards tend to be small; the author of a moderately successful manuscript selling 1000 copies might expect to make less than $4000, and “for many monographs, lifetime royalties are zero or close to it.” As Courant suggests, “The big financial payoff to the author of the great majority of scholarly books is not the royalties but the visibility (and hence the salary and working conditions) of the author in the academic labor market.” If authors aim to contribute to the scholarly conversation and heighten their visibility, it makes sense for them to remove barriers to their work (although they also have an incentive to publish with the top journals or publishers).

Open access facilitates the sharing of scholarly knowledge. Peter Suber, a philosopher and respected advocate for open access, offers a simple definition: “Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” Because such literature is digital and available online, distributing it costs almost nothing, and it can be accessed by anyone with an Internet connection. The lack of most restrictions means that the literature could be accessed and mined, which could open up new insights. But creators can put into place some restrictions over open works. For example, they can adopt a Creative Commons license and specify whether the work can be modified and/or used commercially, as well as whether the work must be attributed (CC-BY) and/or whether new versions of the work must be licensed under the same terms (share and share alike). CC-BY upholds the scholarly practice of acknowledging sources (see Bethany Nowviskie’s “why, oh why, CC-BY?” for a smart discussion of the rationale for adopting this license). There are two principal means of disseminating open access scholarly work: green, through depositing works in disciplinary repositories (like arXiv) or institutional repositories (like DSpace@MIT), and gold, through publishing open journals and monographs. Note that many publishers allow scholars to self archive work in repositories; visit SHERPA RoMEO to access publisher policies.

Unfortunately, the humanities seem to be behind the sciences in practicing openness. As Wikipedia explains, the open science movement aims to enlarge access to research, data, and publications, speed up scholarly communication, facilitate collaboration, and improve the sharing and building of knowledge, whether through open lab notebooks, open data, or open access to scholarly literature. There isn’t even a Wikipedia page for open humanities (let’s get to work!). The Directory of Open Access and Hybrid Journals lists nearly 3000 journals in the sciences as opposed to a little over 1300 in the arts & humanities. Much of the rhetoric around openness focuses on science; as a rough measure, there are approximately 973,000 Google results for “open science” versus around 38,000 for “open humanities”.

In a 2004 essay, Peter Suber pointed to a number of reasons why the humanities have been more reluctant to embrace openness than the sciences, including the greater availability of public funding for scientific research (and publishing fees), a deeper sense of a cost crisis with science journals, the significance of pre-print repositories in the sciences, the importance of monographs in the humanities, and the greater public pressure for open access to science. Updating Suber’s analysis eight years later, Gary Daught suggests that the time may be ripe for efforts to promote openness in the humanities. He notes that the price inflation of humanities journals has become a greater concern and that open source tools such as Open Journal Systems have brought down publishing costs. Perhaps most importantly, as scholars become more accustomed to the speed, convenience and openness of online communication, they may more expect that research is easily accessible.

Indeed, I’ve identified a number of open humanities projects, mainly in the digital humanities. Openness in the humanities can take many forms, including:

While these different ways of categorizing openness are helpful, I agree with Clint Lalonde (riffing on Gardner Campbell) that “open is an attitude”– not only being willing to share resources, but also to work in such a way that others can observe, learn and offer to help. In my next post, I’ll provide a number of examples of open humanities projects and initiatives.

Of course, open humanities projects aren’t necessarily focused on digital humanities; note, for instance, publishing initiatives such as Open Humanities Press. With digital humanities, we often see the intersection of humanistic values and what I’ll call Web values. Driven by a desire to make it easier for scientists to share their data and collaborate, Tim Berners-Lee created the foundations of the Web. Rather than being a proprietary system, the Web is built upon open protocols, standards and design principles. The success of the Web comes from the way that it connects people to each other, information, and experiences, enabling them to share ideas, converse with each other, and explore and interact with information. Hence Berners-Lee’s message (appropriately delivered via Twitter) at the 2012 Summer Olympics: “this is for everyone.” What would it take to say the same about humanities scholarship and educational resources?

[Note: This post expands on a presentation I gave at WPI’s Digital Humanities Symposium in November.]

Examples of Collaborative Digital Humanities Projects

Observing that humanities scholars rarely jointly author articles, as I did in my last post, comes as no surprise.  As Blaise Cronin writes, “Collaboration—for which co-authorship is the most visible and compelling indicator—is established practice in both the life and physical sciences, reflecting the industrial scale, capital-intensiveness and complexity of much contemporary scientific research. But the ‘standard model of scholarly publishing,’ one that ‘assumes a work written by an author,” continues to hold sway in the humanities’ (24).   Just as I found that only about 2% of the articles published in American Literary History between 2004 and 2008 were co-authored, so Cronin et al discovered that just 2% of the articles that appeared in the philosophy journal Mind between 1900 and 2000 were written by more than one person, although between 1990 and 2000 that number increased slightly to 4% (Cronin, Shaw, & La Barre).   Whereas the scale of scientific research often requires scientists to collaborate with each other, humanities scholars typically need only something to write with and about.  But as William Brockman, et al suggest, humanities scholars do have their own traditions of collaboration, or at least of cooperation:  “Circulation of drafts, presentation of papers at conferences, and sharing of citations and ideas, however, are collaborative enterprises that give a social and collegial dimension to the solitary activity of writing. At times, the dependence of humanities scholars upon their colleagues can approach joint authorship of a publication” (11).

Information technology can speed and extend the exchange of ideas, as researchers place their drafts online and solicit comments through technologies such as CommentPress, make available conference papers via institutional repositories, and share citations and notes using tools such as Zotero.  Over ten years, ago John Unsworth described an ongoing shift from cooperation to collaboration, indicating perhaps both his prescience and the slow pace of change in academia.

In the cooperative model, the individual produces scholarship that refers to and draws on the work of other individuals. In the collaborative model, one works in conjunction with others, jointly producing scholarship that cannot be attributed to a single author. This will happen, and is already happening, because of computers and computer networks. Many of us already cooperate, on networked discussion groups and in private email, in the research of others: we answer questions, provide references for citations, engage in discussion. From here, it’s a small step to collaboration, using those same channels as a way to overcome geographical dispersion, the difference in time zones, and the limitations of our own knowledge.

The limitations of our own knowledge.  As Unsworth also observes, collaboration, despite the challenges it poses, can open up new approaches to inquiry: “instead of establishing a single text, editors can present the whole layered history of composition and dissemination; instead of opening for the reader a single path through a thicket of text, the critic can provide her with a map and a machete. This is not an abdication of the responsibility to educate or illuminate: on the contrary, it engages the reader, the user, as a third kind of collaborator, a collaborator in the construction of meaning.”  With the interactivity of networked digital environments, Unsworth imagines the reader becoming an active co-creator of knowledge.  Through online collaboration, scholars can divide labor (whether in making a translation, developing software, or building a digital collection), exchange and refine ideas (via blogs, wikis, listservs, virtual worlds, etc.), engage multiple perspectives, and work together to solve complex problems.  Indeed, “[e]mpowering enhanced collaboration over distance and across disciplines” is central to the vision of cyberinfrastructure or e-research (Atkins).  Likewise, Web 2.0 focuses on sharing, community and collaboration.

Work in many areas of the digital humanities seems to both depend upon collaboration and aim to support it.  Out of the 116 abstracts for posters, presentations, and panels given at the Digital Humanities 2008 (DH2008) conference, 41 (35%) include a form of the word “collaboration,” whether they are describing collaborative technologies (“Online Collaborative Research with REKn and PReE”) or collaborative teams (“a collaborative group of librarians, scholars and technologists”).  Likewise, 67 out of 104 (64%) papers and posters presented at DH 2008 have more than one author.  (Both the Digital Humanities conference and LLC tend to focus on the computational side of the digital humanities, so I’d also like to see if the pattern of collaboration holds in what Tara McPherson calls the “multimodal humanities,” e.g. journals such as Vectors.  Given that works in Vectors typically are produced through collaborations between scholars and designers, I’d expect to see a somewhat similar pattern.)

I was having trouble articulating precisely how collaboration plays a role in humanities research until I began looking for concrete examples—and I found plenty.   As computer networks connect researchers to content, tools and each other, we are seeing humanities projects that facilitate people working together to produce, explore and disseminate knowledge.  I interpret the word “collaboration” broadly; it’s a squishy term with synonyms such as teamwork, cooperation, partnership, and working together, and it also calls to mind co-authorship, communication, community, citizen humanities, and social networks.  In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky puts forward a handy hierarchy of collaboration: 1) sharing; 2) cooperation; 3) collaboration; 4) collectivism (Kelly).  In this post, I’ll list different types of computer-supported collaboration in the humanities, note antecedents in “traditional” scholarship, briefly describe example projects, and point to some supporting technologies.  This is an initial attempt to classify a wide range of activity; some of these categories overlap.

–FACILITATING COMMUNICATION AND KNOWLEDGE BUILDING–

ONLINE COMMUNITIES/ VIRTUAL ORGANIZATIONS

  • Historical antecedents: conferences, colloquia, letters
  • Supporting technologies: listservs, online forums, blogs, social networking platforms, virtual worlds, microblogging (e.g. Twitter), video conferencing
  • Key functions: fostering communication and collaboration across a distance
  • Examples:
    • Listervs: Perhaps the most well-known online community in the humanities is H-NET, which was founded in 1992  and thus predates Web 2.0 or even Web 1.0.  According to Mark Kornbluh, H-Net provides an “electronic version of an academic conference, a way for people to come together and to talk about their research and their teaching, to announce what was going on in the field, and to review and critique things that are going on in the field.”  Currently H-Net  supports over 100 humanities email lists and serves over 100,000 subscribers in more than 90 countries.  Although H-Net has been criticized for relying on an old technology, the listserv, and is facing economic difficulties, it remains valued for supporting information sharing and discussion.  For digital humanities folks, the Humanist list, launched in 1987, serves as “an international online seminar on humanities computing and the digital humanities” and has played a vital part in the intellectual life of the community.
    • Online forums: HASTAC, “a virtual network, a network of networks” that supports collaboration across disciplines and institutions, sponsors lively forums about technology and the humanities, often moderated by graduate students.  HASTAC also organizes conferences, administers a grant competition, and advocates for “new forms of collaboration across communities and disciplines fostered by creative uses of technology.” In my experience, online communities often break down the hierarchies separating graduate students from senior scholars and bring recognition to good ideas, no matter what the source.
    • Online communities: Since 1996, Romantic Circles (RC) has built an online community focused on Romanticism, not only fostering communication among researchers but also collaboratively developing content.  Romantic Circles includes a blog for sharing information about news and events of interest to the community; a searchable archive of electronic editions; collections of critical essays; chronologies, indices, bibliographies and other scholarly tools; reviews; pedagogical resources; and a MOO (gaming environment).  Over 30 people have served as editors, while over 300 people have contributed reviews and essays.  Alan Liu aptly summarizes RC’s significance: “Romantic Circles, which helped pioneer collaborative scholarship on the Web, has become the leading paradigm for what such scholarship could be. One can point variously to the excellence of its refereed editions of primary texts, its panoply of critical and pedagogical resources, its inventive Praxis series, its state-of-the-art use of technology or its stirring commitment (nearly unprecedented on the Web) to spanning the gap between high-school and research-level tiers of education. But ultimately, no one excellence is as important as the overall, holistic impact of the site. We witness here a broad community of scholars using the new media vigorously, inventively, and rigorously to inhabit a period of historical literature together.”In building a community that supports digital scholarship, NINES focuses on three main goals: providing peer review for digital scholarship in 19th century American and British studies (thus helping to legitimize and recognize emerging scholarly forms), helping scholars create digital scholarship by providing training and content, and developing software such as Collex and Juxta to support inquiry and collaboration.
    • Advanced videoconferencing: With budgets tight, time scarce, and concern about the environmental costs  of travel increasing, collaborators often need to meet without having to travel.  AccessGrid supports communication among multiple groups by providing high quality video and audio and enabling researchers to share data and scientific instruments seamlessly.  AccessGrid, which was developed by Argonne National Laboratory and uses open source software, employs large displays and multiple projectors to create an immersive environment.   In the arts and humanities, AccessGrid has been used to support “telematic” performances, the study of high resolution images, seminars, and classes.
CollabRoom by Modbob

CollabRoom by Modbob

COLLABORATORIES

  • Historical antecedents: laboratories, research centers,
  • Supporting technologies: grid technologies/ advanced networking, large displays, remote instrumentation, simulation software, collaboration platforms such as HubZero, databases, digital libraries
  • Key functions: fostering communication, collaboration, resource sharing, and research regardless of physical distance
  • Examples:

William Wulf coined the term collaboratory in 1989 to describe a “center without walls, in which the nation’s researchers can perform their research without regard to physical location, interacting with colleagues, accessing instrumentation, sharing data and computational resources, [and] accessing information in digital libraries.” Most of the collaboratories listed on the (now somewhat-out-of-date) Science of Collaboratories web site focus on the sciences.  For example, scientific collaboratories such as NanoHub, Space Physics and Astronomy Research Collaboratory (SPARC) and Biomedical Informatics Research Network (BIRN) have supported online data sharing, analysis, and communication.

What would a collaboratory in the humanities do? The term has been used in the humanities to refer to:

“Collaboratory” has thus taken on additional meanings, referring to “a new networked organizational form that also includes social processes; collaboration techniques; formal and informal communication; and agreement on norms, principles, values, and rules” (Cogburn, 2003, via Wikipedia).

“Virtual research environment” seems to be replacing “collaboratory” to refer to online collaborative spaces that provide access to tools and content (e.g. Early Modern Texts VRE, powered by Sakai). Through its funding program focused on Virtual Research Environments, JISC has sponsored the Virtual Research Environment for Archaeology, a VRE for the Study of Documents and Manuscripts, Collaborative Research Events on the Web, and myExperiments for sharing scientific workflows.

–SHARING AND AGGREGATING CONTENT—

DIGITAL MEMORY BANKS/ USER-CONTRIBUTED CONTENT

  • Historical antecedents: museums, archives, personal collections
  • Supporting technologies: Web publishing platforms (e.g. Omeka, Drupal), databases
  • Key functions: “collecting & exhibiting” content (to borrow from CHNM)
  • Examples:
    When the Valley of the Shadow project was launched in the 1990s, project team members went into communities in Pennsylvania and Virginia to digitize 19th century documents held by families in personal collections, thus building a virtual archive.  As scanners and digital cameras have become ubiquitous and user-contributed content sites such as Flickr and YouTube have taken off, people can contribute their own digital artifacts to online collections.  For example, The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank collects over 25,000 stories, images, and other multimedia files about Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Using a simple interface, people can upload items and describe the title, keywords, geographic location, and contributor.  The archive thus becomes a dynamic, living repository of current history, a space where researchers and citizens come together—or, in the terminology of the Center for History and New Media (CHNM), a memory bank that “promote[s] popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.”  As the editors of Vectors write in their introduction to “Hurricane Digital Memory Bank: Preserving the Stories of Katrina, Rita, and Wilma,” “Their work troubles a number of binaries long reified by history scholars (and humanities scholars more generally), including one/many, closed/open, expert/amateur, scholarship/journalism, and research/pedagogy.”  CHNM also sponsors digital memory banks focused on Mozilla, September 11, and the Virginia Tech tragedy.  Likewise, the Great War Archive, sponsored by the University of Oxford, contains over 6,500 items about World War I contributed by the public.

CONTENT AGGREGATION AND INTEGRATION

  • Historical antecedents: museums, archives
  • Supporting technologies: databases, open standards
  • Key functions: making it easier to discove, share and use information
  • Examples:
    Too often digital resources reside in silos, as each library or archive puts up its own digital collection.  As a result, researchers must spend more time identifying, searching, and figuring out how to use relevant digital collections.  However, some projects are shifting away from a siloed approach and bringing together collaborators to build digital collections focused on a particular topic or to develop interoperable, federated digital collections.  For instance, the Alliance for American Quilts, MATRIX: Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online, and Michigan State University Museum have created the Quilt Index, which makes available images and descriptions of quilts provided by 14 contributors, including The Library of Congress American Folklife Center and the Illinois State Museum.  As Mark Kornbluh argues, interoperable content enables new kinds of inquiry: “In the natural sciences, large new datasets, powerful computers, and a rich array of computational tools are rapidly transforming knowledge generation. For the same to occur in the humanities, we need to understand the principle that ‘more is better.’ Part of what the computer revolution is doing is that it is letting us bring huge volumes of material under control. Cultural artifacts have always been held by separate institutions and separated by distance. Large–scale interoperable digital repositories, like the Quilt Index, open dramatically new possibilities to look at the totality of cultural content in ways never before possible.” Other examples of content aggregation and integration projects include the Walt Whitman Archive’s Finding Aids for Poetry Manuscripts and NINES.

DATA SHARING

  • Historical antecedents: informal exchange of data
  • Supporting technologies: databases (MySQL, etc), web services tools
  • Key functions: support research by enabling discovery and reuse of data sets
  • Example projects:
    By sharing data, researchers can enable others to build on their work and provide transparency.  As Christine Borgman writes, “If related data and documents can be linked together in a scholarly information infrastructure, creative new forms of data- and information-intensive, distributed, collaborative, multidisciplinary research and learning become possible.  Data are outputs of research, inputs to scholarly publications, and inputs to subsequent research and learning.  Thus they are the foundation of scholarship” (Borgman 115).  Of course, there are a number of problems bound up in data sharing—how to ensure participation, make data discoverable through reliable metadata, balance flexibility in accepting a range of formats and the need for standardization, preserve data for the long term, etc.  Several projects focused on humanities and social science data are beginning to confront at least some of these challenges:

    • Open Context “hopes to make archaeological and related datasets far more accessible and usable through common web-based tools.”  Embracing open access and collaboration, Open Context makes it easy for researchers to upload, search, tag and analyze archaeological datasets.
    • Through Open Street Map, people freely and openly share and use geographic data in a wiki-like fashion.  Contributors employ GPS devices to record details about places such as the names of roads, then upload this information to a collaborative database.  The data is used to create detailed maps that have no copyright restrictions (unlike most geographical data).
    • Through the Reading Experience Database researchers can contribute records of British readers engaging with texts.

–COLLABORATIVE ANNOTATION, TRANSCRIPTION, AND KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTION–

CROWDSOURCING TRANSCRIPTION

  • Historical antecedents: genealogical research(?)
  • Supporting technologies: wikis
  • Key functions: share the labor required for transcribing manuscripts
  • Examples:
    Much of the historical record is not yet accessible online because it exists as handwritten documents—letters, diaries, account books, legal documents, etc.  Although work is underway on Optical Character Recognition software for handwritten materials, making these variable documents searchable and easy to read usually still requires a person to manually transcribe the document.  Why not enable people to collaborate to make family documents and other manuscripts available through commons-based peer production? At THATCamp last year, I learned about Ben Brumley’s FromthePage software, which enables volunteers to transcribe handwritten documents through a web-based interface.  The right side of the interface shows a zoomable image of the page, while on the left volunteers enter the transcription through a wiki-like interface.  Likewise, the FamilySearch Indexing Project, sponsored by the LDS, recruits volunteers to transcribe family information from historical documents.   (See Jeanne Kramer-Smyth’s great account of the THATCamp session on crowdsourcing transcription and annotation.)  Not only can collaborative transcription be more efficient, but it can also reduce error.  Martha Nell Smith recounts how she, working solo at the Houghton, transcribed a line of Susan Dickinson’s poetry as “I’m waiting but the cow’s not back.’’  When her collaborators at the Dickinson Electronic Archives, Lara Vetter and Laura Lauth, later compared the transcriptions to digital images of Dickinson’s manuscripts, they discovered that the line actually says “‘I’m waiting but she comes not back.”  As Smith suggests, “Had we not been working in concert with one another, and had we not had the high quality reproductions of Susan Dickinson’s manuscripts to revisit and thereby perpetually reevaluate our keys to her alphabet, my misreading might have been congealed in the technology of a critical print translation and what is very probably a poetic homage to Emily Dickinson would have lain lost in the annals of literary history”(Smith 849).

    Efforts to crowdsource transcription seem similar to the distributed proofreading that powers Project Gutenberg, which has enlisted volunteers to proofread over 15,000 books since 2000.  Likewise, Project Madurai is using distributed proofreading to build a digital library of Tamil texts.

COLLABORATIVE TRANSLATION

  • Historical antecedents: translation teams, e.g. Pevear and Volokhonsky
  • Supporting technologies: wikis, blogs, machine translation supplemented by human intervention
  • Examples:
    Rather than requiring an individual to undertake the time-intensive work of translating a complex classical text solo, the Suda Online (SOL)  brings together classicists to collaborate in translating into English the Suda, a tenth century encyclopedia of ancient learning written by a committee of Byzantine scholars (and thus itself a collaboration).  In addition to providing translations, SOL also offers commentaries and references, so it serves as a sort of encyclopedic predecessor to Wikipedia.  As Anne Mahoney reports in a recent article from Digital Humanities Quarterly, an email exchange in 1998 sparked the Suda Online; one scholar wondered whether there was an English translation of the Suda (there wasn’t) and others recognized that a translation could be produced through web-based collaboration.  Student programmers at the University of Kentucky quickly developed the technological infrastructure for SOL (a wiki might have been used today, but the custom application has apparently served its purpose well).  Now a self-organizing team of 61 editors and 95 translators from 12 countries has already translated over 21,000 entries, about 2/3 of the total.  Translators make the initial translations, which are then reviewed and augmented by editors (typically classics faculty) and given a quality rating of “draft,” “low,” or “high.”   All who worked on the translation are credited through a sort of open peer review process.  Whereas collaborative projects such as Wikipedia are open to anyone, SOL translators must register with the project.  Mahoney suggests that the collaboration has succeeded in part because it was focused and bounded, so that collaborators could feel the satisfaction of working toward a common goal and meeting milestones, such as 100 entries translated.  According to Mahoney, SOL has made this important text more accessible by offering an English version, making it searchable, and providing commentaries and references.  Moreover, “[a]s a collaboration SOL demonstrates the feasibility of open peer review and the value of incremental progress.” Other collaborative translation projects include The Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, Traduwiki, which aims to “eliminate the last barrier of the Internet, the language’; the WorldWide lexicon project; and Babels.

COLLABORATIVE EDITING

  • Historical antecedents: creating critical editions
  • Supporting technologies: grid computing, XML editors, text analysis tools, annotation tools
  • Example Projects:

As Peter Robinson observed at this year’s MLA, the traditional model for creating a critical edition centralizes authority in an editor, who oversees work by graduate assistants and others.  However, the Internet enables distributed, de-centralized editing.  To create “community-made editions,” a library would digitize texts and produce high quality images, researchers would transcribe those images, others would collate the transcriptions, others would analyze the collations and add commentaries, and so forth.

Explaining the need for collaborative approaches to textual editing, Marc Wilhelm Kiister, Christoph Ludwig and Andreas Aschenbrenner of TextGrid describe how 3 different editors attempted to create a critical edition of the massive “so-called pseudo-capitulars supposedly written by a Benedictus Levita,” dying before they could complete their work.  Now a team of scholars is collaborating to create the edition, increasing their chances of completion by sharing the labor.  The TextGrid project is building a virtual workbench for collaborative editing, annotation, analysis and publication of texts.  Leveraging the grid infrastructure, TextGrid provides a platform for “software agents with well-defined interfaces that can be harnessed together through a user defined workflow to mine or analyze existing textual data or to structure new data both manually and automatically.” TextGrid recently released a beta version of its client application that includes an XML editor, search tool, dictionary search tool, metadata annotator, and workflow modules. As Kiister, Ludwig and Aschenbreener point out, enabling collaboration requires not only developing a technical platform that supports real-time collaboration and automation of routine tasks, but also facilitating a cultural shift toward collaboration among philologists, linguists, historians, librarians, and technical experts.

SOCIAL BIBLIOGRAPHIES, COLLABORATIVE FILTERING, AND ANNOTATION

  • Historical antecedents: shared references, bibliographies
  • Key functions: share citations, notes, and scholarly resources; build collective knolwedge
  • Supporting technologies: social bookmarking, bibliographic tools
  • Projects:
    With the release of Zotero 2.0, Zotero is taking a huge step toward the vision articulated by Dan Cohen of providing access to “the combined wisdom of hundreds of thousands of scholars” (Cohen).  Researchers can set up groups to share collections with a class and/or collaborators on a research project.   I’ve already used Zotero groups to support my research and to collaborate with others; I discovered several useful citations in the collaboration folder for the digital history group, and with Sterling Fluharty I’ve set up a group to study collaboration in the digital humanities (feel free to join).  Ultimately Zotero will provide Amazon-like recommendation services to help scholars identify relevant resources.  As Stan Katz wrote in hailing Zotero’s collaboration with the Internet Archive to create a “Zotero commons” for sharing research documents, “For secretive individualists, which is to say old-fashioned humanists, this will sound like an invasion of privacy and an invitation to plagiarism. But to scholars who value accessibility, collaboration, and the early exchange of information and insight -– the future is available. And free on the Internet.”

    Similarly, the eComma project suggests that collaborative annotation can facilitate collaborative interpretation, as readers catalog poetic devices (personification, enjambment, etc.) and offer their own interpretations of literary works.  You can see eComma at work in the Collaborative Rubáiyát, which enables users to compare different versions of the text, annotate the text, tag it, and access sections through a tag cloud.   Likewise, Philospace will allow scholars to describe philosophical resources, filter them, find resources tagged by others, and submit resulting research for peer review. Other projects and technologies supporting collaborative annotation include Flickr CommonsAus-e-Lit: Collaborative Integration and Annotation Services for Australian Literature Communities, NINES’ Collex, and STEVE.

COLLABORATIVE WRITING

  • Historical antecedents: Encyclopedias
  • Supporting technologies: Wikis
  • Key functions: sharing knowledge, synthesizing multiple perspectives
  • Examples:
    With the rise of Wikipedia, academics have been debating whether collaborative writing spaces such as wikis undermine authority, expertise, and trustworthiness.  In “Literary Sleuths Online,” Ralph Schroeder and Matthijs Den Besten examine the Pynchon Wiki, a collaborative space where Pynchon enthusiasts annotate and discuss his works.  Schroeder and Den Besten compare the wiki’s section on Pynchon’s Against the Day with a print equivalent, Weisenburger’s “A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion.”  While the annotations in Weisenburger’s book are more concise and consistent, the wiki is more comprehensive, more accurate (because many people are checking the information), and more speedily produced (it only took 3 months for the wiki to cover every page of Pynchon’s novel).   Moreover, the book is fixed, while the wiki is open-ended and expansive. Schroeder and Den Besten suggest that competition, community and curiosity drive participation, since contributors raced to add annotations as they made their way through the novel and “sleuthed” together.

GAMING: “Collaborative Play”/ Games as Research

  • Historical antecedents: role playing games, board games, etc.
  • Key functions: problem solving, team work, knowledge sharing
  • Supporting technologies: gaming engines, wikis, networks
  • Example Projects:
    Perhaps some of the most intense collaboration comes in massively multiplayer online games, as teams of players consult each other for assistance navigating virtual worlds, team up to defeat monsters, join guilds to collaborate on quests, and share their knowledge through wikis such as the WOWWiki, which has almost 74,000 articles.  Focusing on World of Warcraft, Nardi and Harris explore collaborative play as a form of learning.  They also point to potential applications of gaming in research communities: “Mixed collaboration spaces, whether MMOGs or another format, may be useful in domains such as interdisciplinary scientific work where a key challenge is finding the right collaborators.”

    Sometimes those collaborators can be people without specialized training.  Recently Wired featured a fascinating article about FoldIt, a game to come up with different models of proteins that is attracting devoted teams of participants (Bohannon).  The game was devised by the University of Washington Departments of Computer Science & Engineering and Biochemistry to crowdsource solutions to Community-Wide Experiment on the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP), a scientific contest to predict protein structures.   Previously biochemist David Baker had used Rosetta@home to harness the spare computing cycles of 86,000 PCs that had been volunteered to help determine the shapes of proteins, but he was convinced that human intelligence as well as computing power needed to be tapped to solve spatial puzzles.  Thus he and his colleagues developed a game in which players fold proteins into their optimal shapes, a sort of “global online molecular speed origami.” Over 100,000 people have downloaded the game, and a 13 year-old is one of the game’s best players. Using the game’s chat function, players formed teams, “and collective efforts proved far more successful than any solo folder.”  At the CASP competition, 7 of the 15 solutions contributed through FoldIt worked, and one finished in first place, so “[a] band of gamer nonscientists had beaten the best biochemists.”

    How might gaming be used to motivate and support humanities research?  As we see in the example of FoldIt, games provide motivation and a structure for collaboration; teamwork enables puzzles to be solved more rapidly.  I could imagine, for example, a game in which players would transcribe pieces of a diary to unravel the mystery it recounts, describe the features of a series of images (similar to Google’s Image Labeler game), or offer up their own interpretations of abstruse philosophical or literary passages.  In “Games of Inquiry for Collaborative Concept Structuring,” Mary A. Keeler and Heather D. Pfeiffer envision a “Manuscript Reconstruction Game (MRG)” where Peirce scholars would collaborate to figure out where a manuscript page belongs. “The scholars rely on the mechanism of the game, as a logical editor or ‘logical lens,’ to help them focus on and clarify the complexities of inference and conceptual content in their collaborative view of the manuscript evidence” (407).  There are already some compelling models for humanities game play.  Dan Cohen recently used Twitter to crowdsource solving an historical puzzle. Ian Bogost and collaborators are investigating the intersections between journalism and gaming.  Jerome McGann describes Ivanhoe as an  “online playspace… for organizing collaborative interpretive investigations of traditional humanities materials of any kind,” as two or more players come together to re-imagine and transform a literary work (McGann).

PUBLISHING

  • Historical antecedents: exchange of drafts, letters, critical dialogs in journals
  • Supporting technologies and protocols: CommentPress, blogs, wikis, Creative Commons licenses, etc.
  • Projects:
    Bob Stein defines the book as “a place where readers (and sometimes authors) congregate.” Recent projects enable readers to participate in all phases of the publishing process, from peer-to-peer review to remixing a work to produce something new.  For instance, LiquidPub aims to transform the dissemination and evaluation of scientific knowledge by enabling “Liquid Publication that can take multiple forms, that evolves continuously, and is enriched by multiple sources.”  Using CommentPress, Noah Wardrip-Fruin  experimented with peer-to-peer review of his new book Expressive Processing alongside traditional peer review, posting a section of the book each week day to the Grand Text Auto blog.  Although it was difficult for many reviewers to get a sense of the book’s overall arguments when they were reading only fragments, Wardrip-Fruin found many benefits to this open approach to peer review: he could engage in conversation with his reviewers and determine how to act on their comments, and he received detailed comments from both academics and non-academics with expertise in the topics being discussed, such as game designers.  Similarly, O’Reilly recently developed the Open Publishing Feedback System to gather comments from the community.  Its first experiment, Programming Scala, yielded over 7000 comments from nearly 750 people. New publishing companies such as WeBook and Vook are exploring collaborative authorship and multimedia.

SOCIAL LEARNING

  • Historical antecedents: Students as research assistants?
  • Supporting technologies: blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, social bibliographies
  • Motto: “We participate, therefore we are.” (via John Seely Brown)
  • Example:
    As John Seely Brown explains, “social learning is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions.”  Social learning involves “learning to be” an expert through apprenticeship, as well as learning the content and language of a domain.  Brown points to open source communities as exemplifying social learning.  I would guess that many, if not most, collaborative digital humanities projects have depended on contributions from undergraduate and graduate students, whether they digitized materials, did programming, authored metadata, contributed to the project wiki, designed the web site, or even managed the project.

    Why not create a network of research projects, so that students studying a similar topic could jointly contribute to a common resource?  Such is the vision of “Looking for Whitman: The Poetry of Place in the Life and Work of Walt Whitman,” led by Matthew Gold.   Working together to build a common web site on Whitman, students will document their research using Web 2.0 technologies such as CommentPress, BuddyPress (Word Press + social networking), blogs, wikis, YouTube, Flickr, Google Maps, etc.m  Students at City Tech, CUNY’s New York City College of Technology and New York University will focus on Whitman in New York;  those at Rutgers University at Camden will look at Whitman as “sage of Camden”; and those at the University of Mary Washington will examine Whitman and the Civil War.   Similarly, Michael Wesch, the 2008 CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year for Doctoral and Research Universities, asks his students to become “co-creators” of knowledge, whether in simulating world history and cultures, creating an ethnography of YouTube, or examining anonymity and new media.

While collaboration in the humanities is certainly not new, these projects suggest how researchers (both professional and amateur) can work together regardless of physical location to share ideas and citations, produce translations or transcriptions, and create common scholarly resources.  Long as this list is, I know I’m omitting many other relevant projects (some of which I’ve bookmarked) and overlooking (for now) the challenges that collaborative scholarship faces.  I’ll be working with several collaborators to explore these issues, but I of course welcome comments….

Works Cited

Atkins, Dan. Report of the National Science Foundation Blue-Ribbon Advisory Panel on Cyberinfrastructure. NSF. January 2003. <http://www.nsf.gov/od/oci/reports/toc.jsp>.
Bohannon, John. “Gamers Unravel the Secret Life of Protein.” Wired 20 Apr 2009. 26 May 2009 <http://www.wired.com/medtech/genetics/magazine/17-05/ff_protein?currentPage=all>.
Borgman, Christine L. Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2007.
Brockman, William et al. Scholarly Work in the Humanities and the Evolving Information Environment. CLIR/DLF, 2001. 24 Jul 2007 <http://www.clir.org/PUBS/reports/pub104/pub104.pdf>.
Cohen, Daniel J. “Zotero: Social and Semantic Computing for Historical Scholarship.” Perspectives (2007). 27 May 2009 <http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2007/0705/0705tec2.cfm>.
Cronin, Blaise, Debora Shaw, and Kathryn La Barre. “A cast of thousands: Coauthorship and subauthorship collaboration in the 20th century as manifested in the scholarly journal literature of psychology and philosophy.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 54.9 (2003): 855-871.
Cronin, Blaise. The hand of science. Scarecrow Press, 2005.
Kelly, Kevin. “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online.” Wired 22 May 2009. 26 May 2009 <http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/17-06/nep_newsocialism?currentPage=all>.
Kornbluh, Mark. “From Digital Repositorities to Information Habitats: H-Net, the Quilt Index, Cyber Infrastruture, and Digital Humanities.” First Monday 13.8: August 4, 2008. 
Kuster, M.W., C. Ludwig, and A. Aschenbrenner. “TextGrid as a Digital Ecosystem.” Digital EcoSystems and Technologies Conference, 2007. DEST ’07. Inaugural IEEE-IES. 2007. 506-511.
Mahoney, Anne. “Tachypaedia Byzantina: The Suda On Line as Collaborative Encyclopedia.”  Digital Humanities Quarterly. 3.1 (2009). 22 Mar 2009 <http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/003/1/000025.html>.
McGann, Jerome J. “Culture and Technology: The Way We Live Now, What Is to Be Done?.” New Literary History 36.1 (2005): 71-82.
Nardi, Bonnie, and Justin Harris. “Strangers and friends: collaborative play in world of warcraft.” Proceedings of the 2006 20th anniversary conference on Computer supported cooperative work. Banff, Alberta, Canada: ACM, 2006. 149-158. 18 May 2009 <http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1180875.1180898>.
O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. “Disciplinary Impact and Technological Obsolescence in Digital Medieval Studies.” A Companion To Digital Humanities. 2 May 2009 <http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/view?docId=blackwell/9781405148641/9781405148641.xml&chunk.id=ss1-4-2&toc.id=0&brand=9781405148641_brand>.
Schroeder, Ralph, and Matthijs Den Besten. “Literary Sleuths On-line: e-Research collaboration on the Pynchon Wiki.” Information, Communication & Society 11.2 (2008): 167-187.
Smith, Martha Nell. “Computing: What Has American Literary Study To Do with It.” American Literature 74.4 (2002): 833-857.
Unsworth, John M. “Creating Digital Resources: the Work of Many Hands.” 14 Sep 1997. 10 Mar 2009 <http://www3.isrl.uiuc.edu/%7Eunsworth/drh97.html>.

Revisions: Fixed From the Page link, 6/1/09; Tanya ] Tara, 6/2/09; fixed typos (6/14/09)