[Humanist] 24.85 reviewing digital scholarship

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Jun 4 11:31:50 CEST 2010

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 85.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Desmond Schmidt <desmond.schmidt at qut.edu.au>              (37)
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 24.82 reviewing digital scholarship

  [2]   From:    Elijah Meeks <emeeks at stanford.edu>                        (13)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.82 reviewing digital scholarship

        Date: Thu, 3 Jun 2010 16:23:46 +1000
        From: Desmond Schmidt <desmond.schmidt at qut.edu.au>
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 24.82 reviewing digital scholarship
        In-Reply-To: <20100603050556.6797D53998 at woodward.joyent.us>


You raise an interesting question - not about born-digtial texts, but about born-analog 
ones. I am not aware that any such technical review process has ever taken place. 
The number of techsperts who could undertake such a review is small, and they 
are mostly busy helping produce these digital artefacts in the first place. But there 
is one way that review of technical tools *can* happen: by collaborative development. 
Tools developed by consensus have by definition an in-built authority of peer review, 
hopefully to the extent that scholars of texts could concentrate on textual issues 
without having to first negotiate their way through a smokescreen of technical ones. 
That's not happening at the moment because the software that is built to enable the web 
presentation of these texts is mostly not shared or developed collaboratively. And that 
doesn't happen because people can't agree on the methods for processing and 
representing them. There needs to be a cleaner separation between the technology
and the editorial process. Ideally, one should be able to edit a text without knowing a 
thing about technology, other than how to point and click in a web browser. At the
moment we seem to be far from this goal.

>So, my question about digital resources, i.e. databases and the like.
>Who will be able to get down to where the decisions are embedded in
>software? What sort of discussion would this getting down entail? Who
>would be able to understand it? And so in what sort of publication would
>it appear? How is this going to happen quickly enough that the review,
>when it appears, still addresses something people use? Who will be able
>to afford the time it takes to review a resource properly, critically?

>Does this mean, then, that historians, say, must take the technical work and
>all those embedded decisions on faith? 

>From all this I conclude, once again, that presenting the digital object
>isn't enough. One has to present and reflect on the process -- which means
>among other things paying attention as participant observer while the work
>is going on. So we're talking here about a different sort of reviewing for a
>different sort of scholarly object, presenting quite different problems from
>those encountered previously.

Dr Desmond Schmidt
Information Security Institute
Faculty of Information Technology
Queensland University of Technology

        Date: Thu, 3 Jun 2010 09:00:17 -0700 (PDT)
        From: Elijah Meeks <emeeks at stanford.edu>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.82 reviewing digital scholarship
        In-Reply-To: <714533974.856127.1275580629858.JavaMail.root at zm07.stanford.edu>


I think, when considering the review of digital scholarly media, we must first separate it into its constituent categories, as has been noted numerous times.  There are tools, used by humanities scholars, to explore humanities questions.  Whether they are tools for improving our bibliographies, or tools for visualizing connections between our agents, or tools for exploring the spatial relationship between phenomena, these are all fundamentally similar when it comes to how we review them in the academy: we don't.  It's not important for humanities scholars to try to review tools, when the merits and problems of those tools should be apparent in the traditional, linear narratives that they have helped to produce.  Just as very complex and expensive tools are used in the sciences to produce traditional scholarly media (the countless bog of journal articles in the countless boroughs of scientific journals) without the tools themselves being the subject of said media, humanities scholars should be content with using tools as well as discussing new and innovative ways to use them, without trying to become a technical expert on their manufacture or design.

Archives, however, are a bit different.  Eventually, domain experts in the subject matter being archived--whether as a database or a marked-up text or otherwise--will need to have some degree of literacy with regard to the methods of packaging such knowledge.  For now, I think it is incumbent upon the creators of the archives to produce media suitably accessible to domain experts in the subject matter who are not familiar or comfortable with the media in which it is stored.  Something like this already occurs, but it is very often only with a highly processed and packaged subset of the data, presented in such a way that the underlying structure is obscured.  It's so terribly important that these databases and encoded texts and other digital sources begin to be systematically reviewed that every step should be taken to reduce the barriers to review on the side of the creators, while at the same time a necessary level of literacy must be encouraged among existing experts so that they can properly engage not only with the bits of data being stored but the structures in which that data has been framed.

Finally, you mentioned simulations and models, and here I think is the category with the most exciting possibilities.  A tool cannot express an argument and a database can only make an ontological one, and as such those types of digital product will always exist in relation to a linear narrative no different than the kind produced in the university for all my lifetime & yours &c as far back as I care to think about it.  A model, on the other hand, is an argument, and can very easily be a scholarly humanities argument and in that case would likely contain narrative aspects, but also contain parametric and algorithmic aspects, all of which fellow scholars would need to engage with to criticize or build upon the original.  And there's no avoiding the fact that an argument presented in this manner requires a scholar to have some understanding of the way software functions.  There's simply no avoiding it, and this mixed system we currently have, wherein some digital humanities scholars are content to experience digital tools and environments, and then step back and make their arguments in linear, narrative fashion, with the occasional picture or map or graph to break up the textual monotone, while they rely on 'experts' to run their tools or build their software, cannot be so vibrant as a community of scholars who can be and are engaged with the digital medium not just as observer but as creator and investigator.

Elijah Meeks
Digital Humanities Specialist
Academic Computing Services
Stanford University
emeeks at stanford.edu

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