Digital versus Traditional Scholarship? The Dilemmas of Critiquing Digital History Projects.

First steps.

First of all, I need to say that the entire world of publishing in the academia is kind of new to me. I did my undergrad studies in Argentina and although I worked for a couple of years teaching in the University and attending conferences, I have to say that the dilemmas of having an article published in a specific journal, or going through the process of having it reviewed, was of a different nature and, in a sense, importance. That is not to say that it was not something that scholars were looking for, but it happened to be more an administrative requisite for those academics that were already part of some academic institutions or were trying to build a career in the official research agency, known as CONICET (The National Scientific and Technical Research Council from Argentina). For the rest of us, recent graduates, our main concern was to find a job (outside the academia) to earn a living while we were working for free as research assistants in seminars, courses, or directly teaching a section of a course. As soon as I arrived to the US and started with the graduate school I began to hear about workshops for publishing in journals, the role of peer reviews, which journals to choose, etc. In sum, little by little I became familiar with some of the aspects of this process. Being in my second year, I’m still taking it calmly and I have to say that I’ve been mostly concerned about presenting my work in conferences and gathering feedback from it, so as to then try to transform some of my papers in potential articles. Why did I do all this introduction? Simply to say that now that I’ve became interested in Digital Scholarship and in the possibilities it may offer for thinking my own work, I have not only to learn and to consider tools and methodologies, but also how it may become (or not) visible. And of course, it is not only a matter of being visible, but who, why and how is making this happen. That is the point where reviews of digital history projects enter in scene. We’ve read a series of articles for this class, such as the guidelines for reviewing Digital History in The Journal of American History, Modern Language Association Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities, American Historical Association Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians, Todd Presner’s How to Evaluate Digital Scholarship, Cameron Blevins’s The New Wave of Review and Fredd Gibbs “The Poetics of Digital Scholarship” article, and I have to say that I found many of them pretty interesting (not only in terms of how can we criticize digital history projects, but in which sense digital history differs from traditional history). Let me summarize some of the key aspects from some of the texts first, so as to then propose some questions, comments and thoughts among this topic.

How to review? What to consider?

The Journal of American History offers first a categorization of the different Digital History Projects, grouping them in genres such as Archive, Essay, Teaching Resource, Tool, Journal/Blog Publication, Digital Community, Podcasts, Games, Data Sets, among others. For this journal, the first step is identifying in which category could the project fit, so as to consider its specificity and therefore, what would need to be taken into account by the reviewers. Another important aspect is the audience, which in terms of Digital History Projects trends to be broader than the one reached by traditional history scholarship. In summary, for the journal the most important areas that reviewers need to consider are content, design, audience, use of digital media technology and creators, that is if the project is a collaborative one or not. Lastly, that Digital History Projects may be works in progress. The Modern Language Association offers as well similar considerations, and we read that:

“Academic work in digital media must be evaluated in the light of these rapidly changing technological, institutional, and professional contexts, and departments should recognize that many traditional notions of scholarship, teaching, and service are being redefined.”

What is important for Todd Presner? He writes that it is important that the work is evaluated in the medium in which it was produced and published and that whereas digital projects may not look like traditional academic scholarship, scholarly rigor must be assessed.Moreover, the methodology used to create the new knowledge created must be analyzed:

“new knowledge is not just new content but also new ways of organizing, classifying, and interacting with content. This means that part of the intellectual contribution of a digital project is the design of the interface, the database, and the code, all of which govern the form of the content.”

The project’s impact is also important, and this connect to the potential broader audience that it may have, as we have already said. Lastly, development cycles, sustainability, and ethics are aspects to consider, the same as their experimental and risk-taking nature. Cameron Blevins is worried that the shifting ideas for evaluating Digital History Projects which are, for him:

  1. in terms of pedagogy and public engagement
  2. to task them for shortcomings surrounding academic argument and interpretation
  3. by privileging method over argument may not consider the project as a whole, and may fail in evaluating whether and how these projects lead to new knowledge or interpretations about the past Lastly, Gibbs reflects in this idea of dividing both scholarships, and he considers why and how digital scholarship must embrace some core traditional values of scholarship, even while requiring new digital values as well. For him, the purpose is:

“to embrace new definitions of scholarship nor to make the digital look traditional, but an effort to define a middle ground between traditional and digital expectations and potentials that will help significant digital projects be recognized as scholarship, as well as push the boundaries of what we should expect from scholarship in the twenty-first century.” (2016:102)

I found his article very appealing and it truly made me reflect in many aspects he considers, most importantly in What constitutes scholarship in the first place?. As he says:

“Only when we consider what constitutes sound scholarship in a broader (but not nec­essarily traditional) sense will we be able to understand how potential digital scholarship can be reviewed and evaluated.” (2016: 106)

I will stop here and move to some of my comments, questions and ideas around this discussion.

New Values? Existing Values but Making them Expansive to New Forms?

My first post On Lisa Spiro’s This Is Why We Fight: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities discussed the values for the Digital Humanities community that she proposed. Moreover, we have seen reflected many of these values in previous discussions of Digital Projects and even in the guidelines that I reviewed here. Now, what if as Gibbs asks, rather than just proposing new values we look for thinking which traditional scholarship values could be shared to then add new ones? I think that this could focus on the shared conceptions in terms of production of knowledge and academic purposes and may avoid thinking in binary terms. Is it either traditional or digital or maybe what remains and what is new in digital? This could be a start point. Of course that there are many different aspects, in terms of methods, publication mediums, collaborative and experimental aspects…of course that a new process of peer review needs to happen, one that consider mostly the interdisciplinary aspect of most Digital History Projects. As Gibbs notes:

“Reviewing digital scholarship remains a challenge for even the most engaged digital humanists, as openly accessible, high quality review work remains almost impossible to find. Scholars (digital or not) who are asked to review digital scholarship, but who have not been en­gaged with critical data studies or other digital humanities discussions where these issues are typically addressed, do not have adequate guid­ance about what to do or how to provide useful reviews.” (2016:119)

In this sense, spaces must be deliberately interdisciplinary. Nevertheless, I do also think that traditional scholarship must be interdisciplinary, so some of my questions (actually not only mine since here I’m borrowing some of the ideas that were collectively thought and discussed in class) are in terms of what do we want our scholarship to be for?, why are we doing what we do?, what are our methodologies?, and our scholarly values?. Not only our methodologies should be revised and questioned when we are dealing with computational techniques, but our traditional tools of analysis should also go under the same process. It is not only considering if we are creating new knowledge by using computational methods in our scholarship, but also if we are doing so under our traditional methods, which generally remain unquestioned.


Gibbs, Frederick. “The Poetics of Digital Scholarship”, in ONTIC FLOWS: From Digital Humanities to Posthumanities, Bernico and Kolke (eds.), Atropos Press, 2016.

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