Tag Archives: research methods

Collaborative Authorship in the Humanities

Recently I heard the editors of a history journal and a literature journal say that they rarely published articles written by more than one author—perhaps a couple every few years.   Around the same time, I was looking over a recent issue of Literary and Linguistic Computing and noticed that it included several jointly-authored articles.  This got me wondering:  is collaborative authorship more common in digital humanities than in “traditional” humanities?

“Collaboration” is often associated with “digital humanities.”  Building digital collections, creating software, devising new analytical methods, and authoring multimodal scholarship typically cannot be accomplished by a solo scholar; rather, digital humanities projects require contributions from people with content knowledge, technical skills, design skills, project management experience, metadata expertise, etc.  Our Cultural Commonwealth identifies enabling collaboration as a key feature of the humanities cyberinfrastructure, funders encourage multi-institutional and even international teams, and proponents of increased collaboration in the humanities like Cathy Davidson and Lisa Ede and Andrea A. Lunsford cite digital humanities projects such as Orlando as exemplifying collaborative possibilities.

As a preliminary investigation, I compared the number of collaboratively-written articles published between 2004 and 2008 in two well-respected quarterly journals, American Literary History (ALH) and Literary and Linguistic Computing (LLC).  Both journals are published by Oxford University Press as part of its humanities catalog. I selected ALH because it is a leading journal on American literature and culture that encourages critical exchanges and interdisciplinary work—and because I thought it would be fun to see what the journal has published since 2004. (The hardest part of my research: resisting the urge to stop and read the articles.)  LLC, the official publication of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing and the Association for Computers and the Humanities, includes contributions on digital humanities from around the world—the UK, the US, Germany, Australia, Greece, Italy, Norway, etc.—and from many disciplines, such as literature, linguistics, computer and information science, statistics, librarianship, and biochemistry.  To determine the level of collaborative authorship in each issue, I tallied articles that had more than one author, excluding editors’ introductions, notes on contributors, etc.  For LLC, I counted everything that had an abstract as an article.  While I didn’t count LLC’s reviews, which typically are brief and focus on a single work, I did include the review essays published by ALH, since they are longer and synthesize critical opinion about several works.

So what did I find? Whereas 5 of 259 (1.93%) articles published in ALH—about one a year–feature two authors (none had more than two), 70 out of 145 (48.28%) of the articles published in LLC were written by two or more authors.  Most (4 of 5, or 80%) of the ALH articles were written by scholars from multiple institutions, whereas 49% (34 of 70) of the LLC articles were.  About 16% (11 of 70) of the LLC articles featured contributors from two or more countries, while none of the ALH articles did.  Two of the five ALH articles are review essays, while three focus on hemispheric or transatlantic American studies.  Although this study should be carried out more systematically across a wider range of journals, the initial results do suggest that collaborative authorship is more common in digital humanities. [See the Zotero reports for ALH and LLC for more information.]

Why does LLC feature more collaboratively written articles than ALH? I suspect that because, as I’ve already suggested, digital humanities projects often require collaboration, whereas most literary criticism can be produced by an individual scholar who needs only texts to read, a place to write, and a computer running a word processing application (as well as a library to provide access to texts, colleagues to consult and to review the resulting research, a university and/or funding agency to support the research, a publisher to disseminate the work, etc.).   Moreover, LLC represents a sort of meeting point for a range of disciplines, including several (such as computer science) that have a tradition of collaborative authorship.  Whereas collaborative authorship is common (even expected) in the sciences, in the humanities many tenure and promotion committees have not yet developed mechanisms for evaluating and crediting collaborative work. In a recent blog post, for example, Cathy Davidson tells a troubling story about being told (in a public and humiliating way) by a member of a search committee that her collaborative work and other “non-traditional” research didn’t “count.”  Literary study values individual interpretation, or what Davidson calls “the humanistic ethic of individuality.”

While individual scholarship remains valid and important, shouldn’t humanities scholarship to expand to embrace collaborative work as well?  Indeed, in 2000 the MLA launched an initiative to consider “alternatives to the adversarial academy” and encourage collaborative scholarship.  (By the way, I’m not criticizing ALH; I doubt that it receives many collaboratively-authored submissions, and it has encouraged critical exchange and interdisciplinary research.)  Of course, collaboration poses some significant challenges, such divvying up and managing work, negotiating conflicts, finding funding for complex projects, assigning credit, etc.    But as Lisa Ede and Andrea A. Lunsford point out, collaborative authorship can lead to a “widening of scholarly possibilities.”  In talking to humanities scholars (particularly those in global humanities), I’ve noticed genuine enthusiasm about collaborative work that allows scholars to engage in community, consider alternative perspectives, and undertake ambitious projects that require diverse skills and/or knowledge.

What kind of collaborations do the jointly-written articles in LLC and ALH represent? Since LLC often lists only the authors’ institutional affiliations, not their departments, tracing the degree of interdisciplinary collaboration would require further research.  However, I did find examples of several types of collaboration (which may overlap):

  • Faculty/student collaboration: In the sciences, faculty frequently publish with their postdocs and students, a practice that seems to be rare in the humanities.  I noted at least one example of a similar collaboration in LLC—involving, I should note, computer science rather than humanities grad students.
    • Urbina, Eduardo et al. “Visual Knowledge: Textual Iconography of the Quixote, a Hypertextual Archive.” Lit Linguist Computing 21.2 (2006): 247-258. 5 Apr 2009 <http://llc.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/21/2/247>.
      This article includes contributions by a professor of Hispanic studies, a professor of computer science, a librarian/archivist/adjunct English professor, and three graduate students in computer science.
  • Project teams: In digital humanities, collaborators often work together on projects to build digital collections, develop software, etc.  In LLC, I found a number of articles written by project teams, such as:
    • Barney, Brett et al. “Ordering Chaos: An Integrated Guide and Online Archive of Walt Whitman’s Poetry Manuscripts.” Lit Linguist Computing 20.2 (2005): 205-217. 5 Apr 2009 <http://llc.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/20/2/205>.
      Members of the project team included an archivist, programmer, digital initiatives librarian, English professor, and two English Ph.Ds who serve as library faculty and focus on digital humanities.
  • Interdisciplinary collaborations: In LLC, I noted several instances of teams that included humanities scholars and scientists working together to apply particular methods (text mining, stemmatic analysis) in the humanities.  For example:
    • Windram, Heather F. et al. “Dante’s Monarchia as a test case for the use of phylogenetic methods in stemmatic analysis.” Lit Linguist Computing 23.4 (2008): 443-463. 5 Apr 2009 <http://llc.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/23/4/443>.  The authors include two biochemists, a textual scholar, and a scholar of Italian literature
    • Sculley, D., and Bradley M. Pasanek. “Meaning and mining: the impact of implicit assumptions in data mining for the humanities.” Lit Linguist Computing 23.4 (2008): 409-424. 5 Apr 2009 <http://llc.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/23/4/409>.
      Authored by a computer scientist and a literature professor.
  • Shared interests: Researchers may publish together because they share an intellectual kinship and can accomplish more by working together.  For instance:
    • Auerbach, Jonathan, and Lisa Gitelman. “Microfilm, Containment, and the Cold War.” American Literary History 19.3 (2007).  I noticed that Jonathan Auerbach and Lisa Gitelman thank each other in works that each had previously published as an individual.

Observing that LLC publishes a number of collaboratively-written articles opens up several questions, which I hope to pursue through interviews with the authors of at least some of these articles (if you are one of these authors, you may see an email from me soon….):

1)    What characterizes the LLC articles that have only one author?
Based on a quick look at the tables of contents from past issues, I suspect that these articles are more likely to be theoretical or to focus on particular problems rather than projects.  Here, for example, are the titles of some singly-authored articles:  “The Inhibition of Geographical Information in Digital Humanities Scholarship,” “Monkey Business—or What is an Edition?,” “What Characterizes Pictures and Text?” and “Original, Authentic, Copy: Conceptual Issues in Digital Texts.”

2)    Why was the article written collaboratively?

What led to the collaboration?  Did team members offer complementary skill sets, such as knowledge of statistical methods and understanding of the content? How did the collaborators come together—do they work for the same institution? Did they meet at a conference? Do they cite each other?

3)    What were the outcomes of the collaboration?

What was accomplished through collaboration that would have been difficult to do otherwise?  Would the scale of the project be smaller if it were pursued by a single scholar? Did the project require contributions from people with different types of expertise?

4)    How was the collaboration managed and sustained?

Was one person in charge, or was authority distributed? What tools were used to facilitate communication, track progress on the project, and support collaborative writing? To what degree was face-to-face interaction important?

5)    What was difficult about the collaboration?

What was hard about collaborating: Communicating? Identifying who does what? Agreeing on methods? Coming to a common understanding of results? Finding funding?

We can find answers to some of these questions in Lynne Siemens’ recent article “’It’s a team if you use “reply all” ‘: An exploration of research teams in digital humanities environments.”  Siemens describes factors contributing to the success of collaborative teams in digital humanities, such as clear milestones and benchmarks, strong leadership, equal contributions by members of the team, and a balance between communication through digital tools and in-person meetings.  I particularly liked the description of “a successful team as a ‘round thing’ with equitable contribution by individual members.”

In doing this research, I realized how much it would benefit from collaborators.  For instance, someone with expertise in citation analysis could help enlarge the study and detect patterns in collaborative authorship, while someone with expertise in qualitative research methods could help to interview collaborative research teams and analyze the resulting data.  However, I think anyone with an interest in the topic could make valuable contributions.  This is by way of leading up to my pitch: I’m working on a piece about collaborative research methods in digital humanities for an essay collection and would welcome collaborators.  If you’re interested in teaming up, contact me at lspiro@rice.edu.

Works Cited

Davidson, Cathy N. “What If Scholars in the Humanities Worked Together, in a Lab?.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 28 May 1999. 18 Apr 2009 <http://chronicle.com/weekly/v45/i38/38b00401.htm>.

Ede, Lisa, and Andrea A. Lunsford. “Collaboration and Concepts of Authorship.” PMLA 116.2 (2001): 354-369. 18 Apr 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/463522>.

Siemens, Lynne. “’It’s a team if you use “reply all” ‘: An exploration of research teams in digital humanities environments.” Lit Linguist Computing (2009): fqp009. 14 Apr 2009 <http://llc.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/fqp009v1>.