Making Digital Scholarship Count

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). It is because I have attended numerous conference sessions and meetings over the past several years where this topic has come up (often in very passionate ways), that I have decided to write this series.

The other motivation for the series was an email I received from a friend and colleague whom I respect very much taking issue with something I wrote after my experiences at our THATCamp unconference here at CHNM. In that post I said that one reason why historians doing digital work find it difficult to receive full credit for their digital work (as opposed to other things they do like publishing a book or an article, teaching a class, or providing service to their institution) is that historians are a fussy and conservative tribe generally resistant to innovation.

My friend’s email suggested that this sort of name calling (his formulation, not mine) would only set back efforts to convince historians to accept digital work as “scholarship” on a par with other forms of scholarly work. I’m standing by my characterization of my tribe as fussy and conservative when it comes to innovations–after all, it’s worth remembering how hard it was for women’s history or cultural history to be accepted as a valid approaches to historical scholarship.

But, having said that, I do think that something needs to be done–something other than complaining about my colleagues. This series of posts is my attempt to move the conversation forward a little.

It seems to me that the first step is to define what we actually mean when we say that digital work should “count” in higher education.

At most colleges and universities around the United States (and to varying degrees elsewhere in the world), there are three domains of activity that faculty members engage in–research, teaching, and service. Most of us have to turn in an annual report that is organized into three sections corresponding to these domains. And in varying ways at various campuses, what can be claimed in each domain is defined by the institution or by departments. Sometimes, those things that count are defined in union contracts. Sometimes they are defined as they come up. In short, there is no standard practice in academia, other than to generally rely on research, teaching, and service as the main categories for faculty evaluation.

Then we get into the thornier issue of how activity in each of these domains is evaluated. Here we see even more variation in practice from one campus to another, from one department to another. What “counts” at one place, is ignored or even penalized at another. At one institution research trumps all, while at another, teaching is the coin of the realm. In some history departments it is enough to have published a book, while in others that book needs to be published by some relatively short list of prestigious presses. Context is everything in this discussion.

Does this mean it is hopeless to even take on the issue of how digital work might fit into such a heterogeneous set of practices?

By no means.

In the history business, we have a very informal and fluid set of standards for determining what is and isn’t meritorious. We all know that an article published in a journal judged to be prestigious is probably more praiseworthy than one published in a backwater journal with little or no reputation. And we know that a book published by a university press that has a great reputation is almost surely better than one published by a press no one has ever heard of.

Or at least we think we know these things.

Whether book or article X published by a prestigious journal/press is actually better than book or article Y published by a journal/press we’ve not heard of is an open question. But we assume in advance that X is probably better than Y.

And not without good reason. Those things submitted for publication to a prestigious press/journal are more likely to go through a more rigorous peer review and editorial process than something published in an underfunded and little known press or journal. And the competition to publish in the prestigious venues is keen–submissions of lesser quality get weeded out.

And thus it has been for generations.

As long as historians produced scholarship that was in a form that fit neatly into this model–books or journal articles published after a peer review process–all was well and the system functioned fairly smoothly. Then digital technology invaded the cozy confines of our discipline and things got a lot more complicated.

In the next post in this series, I’ll consider the ways that digital media have complicated and will continue to complicate this system that has served us reasonably well for so long.

21 thoughts on “Making Digital Scholarship Count

  1. Chris

    On issue that I’ve been pondering for the past week is digital journals like the newish Military History Digital Journal ( How does it fit into the greater scheme of things? At first glance it suffers from both lack of reputation and being digital. Are these efforts worth pursuing, or is it best for “young” historians to pay more attention to more traditional venues for publishing research?

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  3. Eric

    I too have seen this issue raised during a few tech panels at various conferences (e.g. last year’s SSHA), and I think that you’re right about it coming down to individual departments. As a graduate student (and web administrator) in a department that frequently emphasizes its digital humanities credentials, I’ve seen the supportive side, and so I am probably too optimistic about the future. I’ve also heard enough from friends and acquaintances elsewhere to know that things aren’t always so positive. I think that it really comes down to evangelism, and building communities of like-minded individuals (like this one here) – historically, that’s a pretty common path for change in academia.

    So here’s the question for Mills – I doubt you have any shortage of material for this series, but how would you categorize a podcast (a medium with which you are obviously familiar). Beyond the obvious CHNM examples, I might point out Peter Alegi and Peter Limb’s Africa Past and Present, which fits in to what we might think of as a ‘traditional’ academic field of study (as opposed to digitally-oriented podcasts like Digital Campus or First Monday), even though it is neither teaching nor research, at least by conservative standards. Is it service? Good question.

    Re. Chris, I’m of the opinion that writing anything for publication is a positive, even if it’s online (I, for one, am working on my fifth H-Net review in the past two years, to be published this fall). Will it count for tenure in a few years? Maybe not – but it might lead to something that will. Also, the only way to keep an online journal going is to publish good material (again, speaking from a less-positive experience, I was the web editor of an online journal that lasted a single issue in 2000). The only chance for it to be taken seriously, beyond military historians actually reading it, is for it to show some staying power. I’m not too familiar with the project, so I can’t give much more of an opinion.

  4. Chris


    That’s for the comments. I’m in an environment where digital efforts seem largely ignored beyond document archival projects like Early English Books Online and databases like JSTOR. For someone with my IT background and interest in online education, this is problematic, as I see lots of potential for different technologies in history education, research, and preservation.


  5. PhDinHistory

    To what extent are citations a measure of the significance of publications? Can we assume that the journal articles and books that get cited a lot are the most important? Are tenure and promotion committees looking at citation rankings? Could the number of links to our digital scholarship, or counters that record the number of visitors, provide metrics of influence that would be acceptable to tenure and promotion committees?

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  7. Mills Post author

    Thanks to all who have commented so far! I think the more discussion we can have of these issues, the better off we’ll be, because out of the discussion might come something like a way forward.

    To Chris, I want to make a clear distinction between what I’m calling “digital scholarship” and things published in a digital form that might just as easily have been published in an analog form. Thus, for instance, I am not including articles published in digital journals under the category of digital scholarship unless there is something about that article that is inherent to the medium–something that you couldn’t do in analog form. Thus, in today’s post I cited Will Thomas’s and Ed Ayer’s essay in the American Historical Review drawn from the Valley of Shadow project as being an example of digital scholarship, even though in its first form it appeared in an analog journal. What makes it an example of digital scholarship is the fact that the digital portion of the essay is something that can be done only online.

    To Eric, I’m going to have to listen to some episodes of the podcast you mention before I answer. My first take is that podcasts fall into the category of either teaching or service. At least every historical podcast I’ve listened to thus far. However, I also think it is quite possible that a historian could produce a series of podcasts drawn from his or her research that do what an article does–present an argument drawn from research as part of a larger conversation among scholars. I just haven’t seen (heard) any of those sorts of podcasts yet.

    To PhDinHistory, I think you’ve hit on a very good point here and it’s one that I’m going to deal with extensively in either Part 3 or Part 4 of this series. As a preview, it’s worth noting that every discipline has it’s own standards for “significance” and I think that historians (me included) are too wedded to the standards we have right now. I’m pretty sure that digital media are undermining those standards.

    Thanks again to everyone for these cogent comments.

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