Oh, the Digital Humanities! C-EBLIP Journal Club, November 13, 2014

by Shannon Lucky
Library Systems & Information Technology, University of Saskatchewan

The most recent meeting of the C-EBLIP Journal Club was my chance to select an article and lead our discussion. I was intrigued by our previous conversations about strategic publishing choices, open access journals, the perception of different publishing outlets in our field, and alternatives to traditional scholarly publications (like blogs!) and wanted to keep that discussion going. An announcement about the recent digital humanities project The Exceptional and the Everyday: 144 hours in Kiev landed in my inbox and I thought it could ignite a great conversation about alternative research communication options – but it is decidedly not a traditional journal article. Although this goes against the basic organizing principle of a journal club, Virginia encouraged me to take some liberties with the definition of an article and it led to a lively discussion that ranged from the audience(s) for research, to selfies, to peer review and anxiety about wanting to experiment with your research, but also wanting to get tenure.

The Exceptional and the Everyday: 144 hours in Kiev comes from Lev Manovich’s Software Studies Initiative and uses “computational and data visualization techniques [to] explore 13,208 Instagram images shared by 6,165 people in the central area of Kyiv during 2014 Ukrainian revolution (February 17 – February 22, 2014).” I will state my bias up front – I love this kind of stuff. This is a very “DH” (digital humanities) project – I wondered how researchers from other disciplines (like libraries) would feel about putting their resources into creating a website where they release everything (findings, data, and research tools) rather than focusing on getting that highly regarded publication accepted first.

A recent theme that has been running through our meetings is standards for promotion and tenure at our institution and how the collegium values research work and output. There are so many different ways we all engage with research and share the things we learn, but the gold standard remains the traditional peer reviewed, high-impact journals. We had previously talked about the tension between publishing in the most appropriate or interesting place vs. traditional, highly regarded library journals. I wanted to talk about how a project like this breaks the expectation of how research is communicated and if this format is effective, persuasive, authoritative, or just a gimmick.

This publishing format is certainly out of the ordinary but one of the biggest benefits was the ability to get information out FAST. The event this project studied happened less than eight months before the day I got that announcement in my inbox. That kind of production time is basically unheard of in traditional publishing, even for electronic journals. The downside is there is no time for peer review. Post publication peer review was mentioned as an option to keep the timely nature of the publishing cycle while maintaining the important value of peer review. I am very curious what that would look like for this project and how that peer review would be communicated to readers.

Perhaps my favourite comment from our discussions was “This made me feel like the oldest fogey ever”. While a hysterical comment coming from a room full of people who love new research, it nicely described the feeling several of us had trying to read this project like a journal article. As we picked our way through the site we acknowledged that most of the information we look for in an article was there (except an abstract!), but not having it in the familiar linear format was disorienting. The project checks all of the boxes in term of citing sources and uses research methods we recognize, but nothing is where you would expect it to be. It is both easy to browse and difficult to skim for information. We need to develop new literacies to become more comfortable with this format or at least check our assumptions that the best way to communicate research findings is the way we do it now.

Although the project proved complicated to read in the same way we understand journal articles, this format does have major benefits. This kind of project allows you to publish everything – multiple articles or essays, your dataset(s), huge full-colour graphics, interactive visualizations, the digital tools you used to do the research, and you can update all of this stuff on the fly with no extra cost. This is only good if all of that information is useful (or at least beautiful to look at) but it does give the opportunity to understand the methodology and process better by revealing multiple aspects of the research, particularly if the research subject exists online.

All of this analysis and comparison to traditional academic publishing kept coming back to the question of who the audience is. Who is this research for? We didn’t come to a consensus on this question. We did wonder what the altmetrics for something like this would look like and what the benefits are in pursuing this publication model. The project didn’t show up in Google Scholar at all, but it did have over 800 hits from a regular Google search (many from social media). In the end we posed the question: What is more valuable for your research, having a paper peer reviewed and read by your academic peers or seen by thousands of people outside your field and likely outside academia? I can’t imagine building an academic career based on web projects (without peer review) at the moment, but who can tell the future? Things are changing all of the time. Besides, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some peer reviewed articles about 144 Hours in Kiev pop up in Google Scholar in 2015.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.