Digital Scholarship Beyond the Sciences

I finally got around to reading the report from the American Council of Learned Societies on cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social sciences released late last summer. (Actually, it fell off my radar until it was mentioned recently at if:book.) Rather than focus on what digital scholarship could look like, it asks a more fundamental question: Now that the Internet is changing creation and communication, what is the role of the scholar and who are the audiences for their work?

The report talks of mining, animating, exploring, “reverse engineering” historical events, role playing, and using virtual worlds to understand real-world issue. They encourage scholars to think of students and citizens, hobbyists and specialists as the audience, not just scholars writing for other scholars in toll-gated subscription collections.

Naturally, the sticky issue of copyright comes up. After describing the current state of scholarly publishing, the authors conclude “there seems to be general agreement that the system is broken, or breaking” (29) They suggest “It may make more sense to conceive of scholarly communication as a public good than as a marketable commodity” and, taking a leaf from the NIH’s approach to science research, they argue: “If public funds are involved in the creation of a digital resource, proportional elements of those resources should be freely available to the public” (35).

Of particular interest to librarians is the section of the report in which the authors describe a gap between librarians and scholars, and argue scholars in the disciplines should take a greater leadership role.

Librarians, rather than scholars, have provided much of the recent leadership within the academy on issues of cyberinfrastructure in the humanities and social sciences. Reflecting the conservative culture of scholarship,some scholars have questioned librarians’ investments in building digital collections and acquiring online resources. Given that the library constitutes the historic infrastructure of scholarship, it is entirely appropriate that librarians have sought to re-ignite scholarly engagement with infrastructural issues. Nevertheless, others now need to take up the cause and shoulder their leadership responsibilities. (40)

They encourage scholarly societies to take our lead in establishing organizations focused on the future such as the Coalition for Networked Information, the Digital Library Federation, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.

The conclusion, worth quoting at length, addresses the hypothetical question: if this report were successful, what would we see in five or six years?

The answer is two-fold: first, if this report’s recommendations are implemented, then in five or six years there will be a significantly expanded audience for humanities and social science research, among the general public. A relatively small audience on the open Web will still be a far larger audience than scholars in these disciplines have been able to find up to now in academic bookstores, in research libraries, and in print journals. Second, if the recommendations of this report are implemented, humanities and social-science researchers five or six years from now will be answering questions that today they might not even consider asking.

The Commission understands that increasing access to scholarly research and experimenting with new research methods both entail some risk, but it firmly and collectively believes that the risk of not doing both is far greater, in terms of the ultimate sustainability of the disciplines in question. Senior scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and senior administrators in research universities, must lead the way to a new, more open, and more productive relationship with the public, and to new ways of doing scholarship.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

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