Notes on “Scholarly Communications in the History Discipline,” by Griffiths, Dawson, & Rascoff

Executive Summary

This article is a report commissioned by JSTOR in 2006 which illuminates the “resources and processes” employed by historians. The report’s research was obtained from interviews with senior and junior faculty and graduate students from a range of schools.

Overarching themes of the report are laid out in this section. First, the interviews revealed that books–historical monographs–continue to be the “preeminent form of scholarly communications in history” and faculty are hard-pressed to obtain a tenured position without publishing at least one. Second, interviewees related that they felt history was comparatively slow to transferring the field over to digital. And third, the report emphasizes historians’ dedication to understanding the historiography of a particular topic, which in turn creates a more extensive and “wider-ranging” research process compared to other disciplines (Griffiths, Dawson, & Rascoff, 3).

Introduction and Methodology

Study Objectives

  • Develop a general understanding of the tools and processes historians use in their research
  • Understand the role that journals and other types of resources play in the field of history (4)

Study Participant Backgrounds

  • 8 people from Ivy League Institutions
  • 9 people from non-Ivy League Institutions
  • 1 person from Cambridge
  • 4 Librarians
  • 3 History Museum Staff Members
  • Mostly Scholars of American/European History

Overview of Resources Used in History: Past, Present, and Future

Monographs

As stated above, monographs were still considered the most important mode of publishing research for historians in 2006. The report observed no signs of this trend shifting in the near future, though there are arguments against the continued prioritization of the monograph. These arguments include: teaching should be emphasized over research; monographs are less accessible online as opposed to journal articles; and monograph publishing has become increasingly difficult following the decline of university presses and below-average book sales.

Journals

Since 1975, the number of history journals in existence by 2006 had “more than doubled” (6). These journals contain articles and book reviews. The former, although considered less useful to scholars’ careers, were thought to be more accessible for researchers and thus, more frequently in use. The latter, book reviews, also serve a particular purpose within journals: writing them is a “prestigious” opportunity, and also provide a bite-sized summary of books that scholars use to stay up to date on their field (7).

Peer review is another topic of focus in this section. Expectedly, this study found that interviewees and historians generally find this process to be one of great importance in their field. The peer review subsection breaks down some of the intricacies of the process and the importance of the practice to historians’ careers.

Conference Proceedings and Multi-Author Volumes

The report states that interviewees saw multi-author volumes as a relatively new format. They vary in size and quality and typically were not available online.

Abstracting Services

Abstracting services were reported as an incredibly important tool of research by interviewees. America: History and Life, Historical Abstracts, and the History of Science were a few of the services noted by study participants.

Primary Materials

The stark lack of digitized primary source material is noted in this subsection. Interestingly, when this study was conducted, scholars reported having not used digitized source material because “doing so would not be perceived as real research” (9).

Listservs

All historians interviewed in this study reported having used “some component” of H-Net, whether to engage in dialogue with other historians or to ask general questions (10).

Transition from Print to Electronic

According to this subsection, by 2006 the sciences and social sciences were well beyond history in their adoption of digital resources. Historians at the time were not clamoring to integrate historical work into the digital space; thus, at the time there were few journals which were entirely available online.

The report cited the lack of electronic scholarship largely as an issue of academia’s recognition of its value. “Very few books are available electronically,” they write, “and many scholars are still skeptical about the quality of e-books, which are thought to be books that were not good enough to be published in print” (11). While electronic journals and other digital history resources were beginning to pop up around this time, there were still significant concerns surrounding revenues and respectability.

How Historians Do Research

In a conclusion of sorts, the report states that historians at the time were far less likely to use digital resources than scholars within other disciplines. Moreover, there was not much of a desire to break down institutional paywalls in the interest of open access journals/other scholarly materials. The African Studies Association’s panel on open access, as well as public historians generally, are noted as having been ahead of the curve in terms of dialogue about accessibility.

Discussion Questions

  1. Considering that this report was written in 2006, in what ways has the field changed in its relationship toward the Internet?
  2. Are there any particular ways you think the field hasn’t changed since this report was published?

8 Replies to “Notes on “Scholarly Communications in the History Discipline,” by Griffiths, Dawson, & Rascoff”

  1. Hi Karly! Thanks for your work on this!

    In regards to your first question, I think A LOT has changed regarding historians and digital adoption since 2006 but its clear we still are not moving fast enough. Just the past two years have provided a few catalysts for change. The first is the pandemic – We have talked often about how the pandemic really forced museums and archivists to embrace digital means in order to continue to fulfill their fuctions. The other catalyst is the societal call for equity. In your post you mentioned the apathy historians felt at the time of the study towards paywalls. I think that this issue is more front and center than previously and hopefully we will see fewer of them as we enter the field.

    1. Hi Caroline, thanks for your comment! It’s interesting how you frame the origins of this change as two-fold, with the upheaval of the pandemic and concerns over equity as central impetuses – I completely agree! It’s fascinating to compare historians’ sentiments toward accessibility of scholarship between 2006 and the present day; the field of today certainly seems to prioritize this a bit more than it used to.

  2. Great job Karly!

    Regarding changes since 2006, well, e-books are certainly VERY popular, and digital copies of primary sources are definitely far more available— although sometimes still behind a paywall.

    I think among the biggest changes, is how academics have/are warming up to publishing their work via blogs. Typically, this is still alongside more traditional academic publishing like monographs and journals. Even apart from blogs, the amount of academics utilizing Twitter to discuss their research has definitely increased since 2006 (the same year Twitter was created).

    All in all, I think academics are warming up to the idea of using the digital world as a tool, seeing it as an asset, rather than an obstacle to their work.

    1. Hi Sam! I couldn’t agree more with your point about Twitter – it seems to be absolutely teeming with historians, almost to the point of being overwhelming (for myself, at least!). One example that came to mind which illustrates the importance of this platform to the field is when last semester, Dr. Rao created an entire class assignment for us to track the feed of any particular Twitter historian and report back our findings about how they used it. Though I can’t imagine myself becoming a prolific ‘Twitterstorian,’ I can certainly see its benefits.

  3. The ways in which the field has changed it’s relationship to digital content are enormous, and I think this is a wonderful question to consider. From my own experience, historians have become more entrenched in writing and interacting with online journals. The ability to read and then reach out to the author is a helpful tool for historians who are already higher level as well as beginners. I think the past few years have also introduced an interesting concept: online conferences. This allows historians from around the world to contribute to the conversation, thus providing new experiences and insights.

    1. Evie – that’s a wonderful point about online journals and conferences! I think the pandemic has also forced the field to adapt in ways that incorporate these sorts of digital academic practices into the day-to-day. It’s interesting to think about how future historiographical research might be bolstered by the ability to reference historical discourse as it happened in real time.

  4. Good Job Karly,

    Reading this article you realized how attitudes have changed towards digital content. Historians realized that digital content can be used as a resource rather than obstacle or something to criticize. Even though historians have came along away from 2006, many are still skeptical about how reliable digital sources can be because many think anyone can post or write anything online and that doesn’t necessarily have to be reliable. I believe that it will be historian’s job to weed out those resources and get credible ones for their research. I think some historians are warming up to using blogs and other forms of resources to not only be accessible to them , but to the public.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sherrell! I agree that accessibility seems to be more top of mind for historians than it used to be, despite their misgivings about the reliability of digital resources. I hope that this trend continues and we see the field become increasingly comfortable navigating the sometimes-murky waters of the Internet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.