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The final challenge I will address with regard to sustainability for digital scholarship at the institutional level is addressing our own structures for conferring tenure and promotion. The demands of this work require expertise in both traditional humanities research and digital methods. The members of my department mostly recognize this, but even though the first digital editions were published online in our department in the 1990s, it is only this year that the department is officially incorporating digital scholarship into its Standards for Promotion and Tenure document. In my experience of working in the digital humanities in the Canadian context it is still difficult to explain what it is that I do, why it is important, and why it is worth as much as the work that other researchers do. Recognition for this work at the departmental and college level is key: until digital scholarship has established itself as legitimate, and as equal to more traditional forms of book production, sustainability is uncertain, as digital researchers will have to turn their attention consistently to fighting local battles about worth and merit rather than focusing on research and development.

The Modern Language Association’s 2006 report on tenure and promotion noted that new modes of scholarship include digital archives and humanities databases, though a major focus is on monographs and journal articles in electronic format (rather than new forms of publishing entirely in a variety of inventive digital project forms). Even these, relatively comparable to refereed publications in print, were not seen by a majority of departments as “important” for earning promotion and tenure. Furthermore, as the report concludes, “It is of course convenient when electronic scholarly editing and writing are clearly analogous to their print counterparts.” Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion (Modern Language Association of America, 2007), 44. (External Link) . In our department we have started the process of defining what digital humanities projects entail, but we have not yet determined how “valuable” or how meritorious scholarly work is when it is ongoing, experimental, and without a formal peer review system. Given that many reviewers do not have experience in the practices of digital projects and research, how will they tend to treat the significant but to date largely unacknowledged differences between creative and original digital project design, conception, and implementation, and the industriousness or “sweat-of-the-brow” projects that are more concerned with gathering and marking existing data (and all the various levels in between)? Should peer-reviewed external funding “count” as a meritorious indication of a successful research program, or is it merely an essential component of our practice? Some of my colleagues have invested many hours of investigation and experimentation into tools that are not yet publicly released. Others have incorporated student editions (teaching the editorial process) into their research. In terms of my own situation, I worry that in an online environment there is no need for an edition to represent a single work or stand-alone collection by a single editor or small group of editors, there is no need for an edition to be “finished”: indeed, an edition need not be book-like at all. I imagine a multimedia work that encompasses a database of factual information never before integrated within a single system, an expanding corpora of networked texts, images, and unmoderated Web 2.0-style editorial commentary, a rigorous application of documented usability guidelines and testing, and high-quality graphic and interface design that is regularly updated; the resulting publication is an experiment, a teaching tool and a research tool, and quite possibly a decades-long commitment for its principal creator(s). All of these components might well make an innovative, important, sustained and usable contribution to scholarship, research, and teaching, but how will I, as principle investigator, present this work to the College Review Committee, which oversees tenure, promotion, and merit increases, in the first year? in the third year? in the tenth year? These issues are starting to be addressed at my institution, and they will certainly evolve as other universities work through the same processes of examining assumptions about peer review, the relative merits of digital versus print publications, and work that does not fall neatly into traditional categories of research and pedagogy. Scott Jaschik, “Tenure in a Digital Era,” Inside Higher Ed (26 May 2009). (External Link) .

To conclude, every instance of setting up a research program entails a process of education both for me and for the people who ultimately help to support my work. Moving humanities scholarship, historically and typically a relatively inexpensive practice, into digital projects, which often require expensive equipment, space, and personnel, means one must educate one’s colleagues, one’s department or college, one’s internal sources of funding, one’s research office, and one’s potential grant reviewers about the need for resources in an area that typically requires books, word processing, and thought, what those resources legitimately ought to be, and whether digital scholarship itself has any “value.” I have discussed some of the obstacles that digital projects encounter, but I will end with what I think is likely to happen as institutions catch up to individual scholars working in this area. My goals, and many others, are accomplishable, and digital projects are likely to go forward in productive ways as long as the necessary collaborations between librarians, archivists, scholars, and commercial publishers are strategically pursued and achieved. While failed or stalled projects and collaborations, and probably a few lawsuits lie ahead, there is every indication that many other digital projects and collaborations will go forward, that new business models and new models of scholarship are emerging, and that they will benefit all stakeholders.

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Source:  OpenStax, Online humanities scholarship: the shape of things to come. OpenStax CNX. May 08, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11199/1.1
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