U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The AHA and Digital Scholarship

Last week, I blogged about the need for our professional societies to more actively involve themselves in helping our profession, our departments, and our institutions grapple with the changes in historical scholarship brought about by the digital revolution. This week there has been an important development on this front. The AHA’s ad hoc Committee on the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in History, which was formed in January 2014, issued draft Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in History. The committee is asking for feedback on this draft. They hope to put together a final version of these guidelines for approval by the AHA’s Council during the last two weeks of May. I encourage anyone interested in these issues to read the draft and join the conversation.

Since the draft was only circulated online two days ago, my responses to it are very preliminary. I may blog about it again when I’ve had more time to think about it. But here are some immediate responses to the draft.

As Seth Denbo, the AHA’s Director of Scholarly Communication and Digital Initiatives notes on his blog post about the draft guidelines at AHA Today, “rather than formulate specific instructions, the guidelines take the approach of making recommendations to both departments and individual scholars.” The draft talks at some length about the importance of the questions it addresses and describes many of the forms that digital scholarship takes. To its credit, the Committee has a very broad conception of what qualifies as digital scholarship.

The guidelines themselves, which take up just two pages of the eight-page long report, consist of a list of “Responsibilities of Departments,” which is followed by a list of “Responsibilities of Scholars.” At first glance, both lists look sensible. The document urges departments to adopt clear guidelines for the evaluation of digital scholarship and provides some guidance for their doing so.   Scholars are similarly urged to be clear about their intentions and goals when undertaking digital projects, to be prepared to document and explain their work to their colleagues, and to educate themselves about how their departments evaluate digital scholarships. Both lists focus on a set of questions that departments and scholars ought to ask rather than attempting to provide answers for those questions. I am ambivalent about this approach.

On the one hand, there really cannot be a one-size-fits-all set of guidelines regarding digital scholarship. Different departments have wildly different expectations regarding scholarship, teaching, and service. Just as different departments treat traditional forms of scholarship, such as edited volumes or journal articles, differently when evaluating their faculty, we can expect that departments will treat digital scholarship differently. My concern about this approach, however, is that the disagreements that currently exist among departments about digital scholarship are far greater than those that exist around traditional scholarly forms. These disagreements exist in part because, many forms of digital scholarship seem quite unlike the traditional scholarly genres.

In its second section (labeled “Prologue”), the draft provides a very clear guidance on what is probably the easiest issue in the evaluation of digital scholarship:

Some digital publication can be very nearly indistinguishable from print publication in every respect but its medium. A high-quality, peer-reviewed journal article or long-form manuscript published only in digital form is the equivalent of a similar publication printed on paper. A historian whose expressive and methodological practices differ very little from print-era scholars should carry no special burden for explaining why his or her work appears in digital form save to provide basic information about practices of peer-review, editorial control and circulation that any scholar might be asked to supply about any publication during an evaluation process.

I applaud the clear recommendation of this paragraph, though I wish that its judgment were repeated in the guidelines themselves. But most issues in the evaluation of digital scholarship are less clear, a fact that I’m sure helps account for the relative reticence of the report on providing as firm answers on these other issues.

Last year at the OAH, I took part in a roundtable on the question “Is Blogging Scholarship?” The various bloggers on the panel had extraordinarily different answers to this question. Not surprisingly, our departments evaluate our blogging very differently. As I noted at the time, although I think that some blogging is scholarship, my department considers my blogging to be service, not scholarship. I was thus very pleased to see blogging clearly described in the draft AHA guidelines as a form of digital scholarship. But is noting this while suggesting that departments need to consider how to evaluate digital scholarship enough?

Though different departments will – and perhaps should – give different weights to particular scholarly genres, I think it is important that we at least have a profession-wide agreement on what counts as scholarship. When it comes to many forms of digital scholarship, there is nowhere near such a consensus. However sympathetic I am with the draft guidelines’ conclusion that blogging is scholarship, given the real disagreements on this issue among historians, the guidelines cannot simply demand that departments have to count blogging as such. But the AHA ought to do what it can to help move us as a discipline toward a broad consensus about what counts as digital scholarship and how it should be evaluated, even if the details will vary from department to department. These draft guidelines are a step in that direction. But I’m not sure they go far enough. I hope their suggestion to form an AHA working group on digital scholarship that would, among other tasks, “help to foster conversations using AHA Communities” might lead to opportunities to build such consensuses.

Finally, I think that the AHA – and the profession as a whole – needs to consider much more broadly the ways that digital technologies have affected our profession. For example, embargoing dissertations has become an issue in large measure because of the ease with which the internet gives us all access to non-embargoed dissertations and the ways in which the digital revolution has transformed (and in many ways threatened) traditional academic publishing. These broader questions go well beyond the charge of the committee that produced the AHA’s draft guidelines on digital scholarship; they require some other effort on the part of the AHA. At a moment in which the ongoing academic labor crisis has led the current President of the AHA, Vicki Ruiz, to announce that she will stop taking new doctoral students, the profession needs to take full stock of the promises and perils of new technology for the future of history.