Project-Based Scholarship

The authors of Digital Humanities posit that the digital humanities are both rooted in and divergent from traditional scholarship in significant ways, not least of all the idea of project-based scholarship. They define digital humanities as “an array of practices,” rather than a field. What implications does this classification have for how digital projects are developed and evaluated?

                Digital Humanities begins by describing just what the digital humanities are, in part by outlining what they are not. At its core, the digital humanities are based on the belief that print text is not the primary form of knowledge production. Instead knowledge is both created and presented through text and through graphics, with even the medium and tools used to present this content themselves being a form of knowledge production. DH are not simply a digitized version of print knowledge and content, nor the study of digital objects. It is this essential piece of knowledge creation that distinguishes the digital humanities as scholarly work.

                What distinguishes work in the digital humanities from traditional scholarship, beyond the form in which it is presented? To start, as Digital Humanities reminds us, single authorship is the goal of traditional scholarship. Digital projects, however, require collaborative work within a network of people that each bring different skill sets to the final product. Digital work also values “doing” or creation as a form and valuable production of knowledge, while traditional scholarship rewards intellectual work instead. Finally, digital scholarship takes shape in projects that serve as “iterative processes” – they don’t necessarily go directly from conception to development to publication without revisions, redesigning, and testing in between. Each of these features mean that digital scholarship requires a different production process than traditional scholarship, and thus a different product – a project, rather than a print publication.

The sum of these distinguishing features mean that digital projects also require different standards of evaluation than traditional scholarship. One of the most basic standards of measurement is the assessment of when is a digital project is “finished.” Kirschenbaum tackles this question in a very digital humanities-informed approach – a series of project case-study essays – but doesn’t end up with a straightforward answer. He muses that flexibility and the potential and expectation of refinement over time is part of what distinguishes digital scholarship from print, but how long should this process continue? The authors of Digital Humanities advise that each digital project should set its own standards of success and failure during the development phase, and perhaps this is the studied answer for completeness as well – it depends on the project.

This question of completeness is part of a larger discussion of how to assess digital humanities projects. How can digital humanities as a field create standards to evaluate scholarship that is untraditional, meant to be constantly innovative, and doesn’t have a predictable final form? (Even more existentially, should it? Can you call something scholarly if there are not standards by which to evaluate it?) Digital Humanities turns again to its definition of the field to answer this provocation. Since digital scholarship is both traditional and innovative in its own right, it requires a combination of existing methods of evaluation – peer review, assignment of credit, institutional support, etc. – as well as project-specific measures to assess a project’s success. These can include counting a number of viewers or contributors, quantifying audience engagement and feedback, and others. In every case, the authors argue, evaluation must consider both the content and design as forms of knowledge production, and consider the question of what the project is accomplishing that could not be done in print scholarship.

Digital scholarship is distinguished from traditional scholarship because it is project-based. This divergent approach allows for more innovative space in which scholars can innovate, create knowledge in new ways, work with each other, and refine their work over time. In this way, digital scholarship shares many features of traditional scholarship but is not simply a translation of print work into digital form. It requires its own informed approach based on the form of project-based scholarship.  

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