What is Digital Scholarship?

What is digital scholarship? It’s a big question; and it’s currently the focus of energetic discussion inside and outside of the academy.

Don’t be surprised if you hear different answers when you ask what digital scholarship is: what people tell you reflects the diversity and multi-faceted nature of all scholarly work. However, it’s possible to provide an overview that helps scholars understand how digital scholarship may affect their research:

Digital scholarship involves changes in the resources that are available.

In the past decade, tens of thousands of primary source documents have been digitized and made available online, either through open collections like GoogleBooks, the HathiTrust Archive, and the Digital Public Library of America, or through commercial collections available through library subscription. For researchers in literature and history, the sudden availability of so much source material can be exciting and daunting, because there is so much more available than any individual has time to read.

Libraries have begun digitizing parts of their collections in order to preserve fragile materials and make their contents accessible online to local and/or long-distance researchers. Creating digital versions of their holdings also helps libraries maintain sizeable collections despite physical space being limited as university populations increase. And as new forms of scholarship are created, academic libraries work to find ways of preserving them.

Digital scholarship uses the same skills that are vital to non-digital scholarship.

Writing an essay, a dissertation, or a book requires that you know your material inside and out. Your ability to interpret content is the foundation of scholarly arguments, whether you’re close reading a poem, examining  a 16th-century ledger, or working with recent census data.

If you’re working with digital tools and resources, the very same interpretive skills are vital. You need to be able to think critically about the relationship between different documents, and the information within them. When you are text mining a large corpus of over 500 documents, you are looking for patterns — but only a rigorous understanding of your field allows you to know which patterns are significant, and which aren’t.

Digital technology allows students and researchers to produce new types of content.

Essays and monographs have been the primary products of scholarship for decades because they work so well — and the rise of digital scholarship does not mean that the book and essay are going to disappear. But technology allows new opportunities: an image-heavy essay that would have been an expensive and risky endeavour in print is possible in an electronic format. A researcher whose field includes ephemeral objects (especially audio or video) may find it easier to include them in digital mediums, allowing audiences to have a richer experience of the subject matter. Scholarly materials that are heavily visual or auditory are sometimes called multimodal scholarship, because the argument is presented in multiple modes in addition to print.

Besides digital essays or monographs, digital scholars may produce scholarly digital objects: an interactive timeline, database, or other application. Creating these objects involves a mixture of curation and commentary. Critical arguments are still at the heart of any digital object, but they are presented differently than in print, and readers’ experiences will almost certainly be different — just as experiencing a museum exhibit differs from an oral lecture.

Digital scholarship leads to partnerships between researchers and non-academic professionals.

The computational tools that allow digital scholarship to be created are sometimes simple — and sometimes highly complex, requiring years of training and experience. When the most complex tools are involved, it is the combined expertise and efforts of academics and technical workers that leads to new discoveries. Preparing for these partnerships can help scholars examine their research area from new angles — and may lead to a range of opportunities outside of traditional academic jobs.

Digital scholarship intersects with other academic fields and concerns.

One of the reasons that digital scholarship can seem amorphous is that it overlaps with other scholarly work, such as public scholarship, and research focused on current events and culture. Public scholarship is explicitly concerned with the non-academic world. Often, the people who create public scholarship are concerned with ensuring that it is accessible, welcoming, and fuelled by collaboration with non-academic audiences. Digital tools and media help to facilitate public interaction and engagement, and so public scholarship is often digital, and vice-versa.

Researchers studying current events and culture (including political science and sociology) may deal with topics that are highly dynamic and contingent. For such topics, scholars can make use of digital data pulled from social media networks. Smartphones, Twitter, and blogging sites provide direct access to individual voices without requiring a constant presence in the field. Digital scholars who study current events and culture combine their specialized disciplinary expertise with statistical knowledge that helps them perform computational analyses to determine what the data they gather means.

In some cases, digital technology has made the impossible into a reality — and so it’s not surprising that digital scholarship, and digital humanities, have provoked a great deal of enthusiasm. But skepticism is important, too — the best researchers are aware of what computers can’t do, as well as what they can accomplish.

Your research might have a large digital component — or, a small and tangential one. In the end, considering digital resources and possibilities means making choices about the best ways to pursue a question, and engage fellow scholars, students, and larger communities — or in other words, the same work that academics have been engaged in since the university began.