Saturday, June 28, 2008

Making Digital Scholarship Count

The title of this post is the title of a series of blog posts by Mills Kelly, a historian teaching at George Mason University. I have raised this issue previously, but Kelly--who has actually tried to assess the value of digital learning strategies and has some significant work on the web to support his credentials--introduces the series in the first of 3 posts (part 1, part 2, part 3) with:

Today I am inaugurating an extended series of posts on the question of how digital scholarship should “count” in the ways that things count at colleges and universities. As more and more scholars do work in the digital environment they are expecting this work to count toward tenure, promotion, and other types of formal evaluation (in the hiring process, for instance).
He makes a helpful distinction between "digital scholarship" and "digital work" of which the former is a subset of the latter. He points to his World History Sources and Women in World History sites and describes them as “applied research on student learning and technology." As for traditional scholarship, he writes:
In almost any discipline one cares to name scholarship has the following characteristics: It is the result of original research; it has an argument of some sort and that argument is situated in a preexisting conversation among scholars; it is public, it is peer reviewed; and it has an audience response. (from post 2)
Traditionally, this has meant books or articles, but Kelly argues for the value of digital publication. Note, however, that he still wants to distinguish between digital work (and he would include even the incredible Perseus Project in this category) from scholarship which employs such databases and presents an argument. [At this point, as I look at my own work on this blog, it is certainly work and not scholarship. I believe that such work can be valuable (and Kelly also recognizes the importance of digital work) and should be included in the overall assessment of one's contributions in his/her field, but it is helpful to maintain the distinction.]

In his third post, he identifies an important issue that distinguishes between traditional and digital scholarship: peer review. Traditionally, peer review is an oftentimes slow process of submission, review (usually by one person), response, editing. Kelly writes:
Why won’t this process survive in the digital world? The answer is pretty simple. It just takes too long and does not work in a medium where gatekeeping makes no sense. By it’s very nature, digital scholarship happens in a dynamic space–one where the work is often “self-published” in the sense that a scholar or a group of scholars creates historical work in the digital environment and then it is made available when it’s done (or close enough to done to show other people). Not after a lengthy process of peer review–but when it’s ready to be seen... Then, and only then, does the peer review begin.
Kelly argues that recognizing digital scholarship is critical and concludes:
I’m not proposing that we throw out a system that has worked for so long in one fell swoop. But I am suggesting that there needs to be a serious discussion in our profession of what peer review means, what its value is to the process of advancing knowledge, and how it can change to take into account the new realities of the digital world. If we don’t have this discussion–and soon–we’re in danger of losing touch with a rising generation of young scholars who will see us as nothing more than cranky old scholars who are hanging onto an old system because it serves our interests and not theirs.
I hope I have correctly summarized Kelly's argument and provided only enough quotations to encourage you to read it for yourself.

HT: Dan Cohen's Digital Humanities Blog

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