What is Digital Scholarship?

The number one question I get when talking about digital scholarship, is what exactly that means. How is digital scholarship any different than regular (analog?) scholarship? Does one have to be a technophile in order to consider what they do to qualify as digital work? These sentiments are being echoed around higher education, so its no insignificant problem for those of us who walk around talking about this as something we do. Offering clarity is the key to creating connections, so… here is my take.

Digital scholarship is project-based, collaborative, innovation-prone and embraces new modes and means of dissemination.

The reason we call this “digital” work, is because of how this type of scholarship is done – through, because of and invested in internet and technology-based tools. A key aspect of my proposed definition of Digital Scholarship is that each part needs to be represented in the whole. For example, plenty of science scholarship could be characterized as project-based, and collaborative without necessarily being interested in innovating how or where it is presented to an audience. On the flip side, traditional humanities scholarly works seem to have a lot more ground to cover to meet these criteria, which is why, I’d argue, the digital humanities garnered so much attention quickly and widely in recent years.

Beyond my speculations, here are two specific examples that I believe prove my point. 

1) iDigBio – Integrated Digitized Biocultures 

project-based – √     collaborative – √     innovative – √     new modes/means of sharing – √

“…data and images for millions of biological specimens are being made available in electronic format for the research community, government agencies, students, educators, and the general public.”

This project echoes similar projects being done in other areas (STEM and humanities) but is approaching it in an innovative sense; a major focus of the project is engaging with the public beyond the academy, and content delivery is accomplished through the web, broadly speaking (website, wikis, APIs, multimedia). Additionally, iDigBio is a large-scale NSF funded collaborative project between the Florida Museum of Natural History, Florida State University and the University of Florida. Like other mega-collections of digitized objects, we probably have not yet seen the full value of what iDigBio will be, but in my mind the approach they’ve taken from the beginning offers a lot of promise for what might be built on top of this project.


2) Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

project-based – √     collaborative – √     innovative – √     new modes/means of sharing – √

“Wikipedia’s gender trouble is well documented. In a 2010 survey, Wikimedia found that less than 13% of its contributors are female… Content is skewed by the lack of female participation. Many articles on notable women in history and art are absent on Wikipedia.”

Different than most of what is considered scholarship, this project produces practical, immediate change in the #1 information resource on the web. It is massively collaborative, like iDigBio, innovative in the focus and scope of the work (female artists and feminist art works), and embraces the web as the medium and the message. Art+Feminism was launched in Feb. 2014 in NYC and has developed into numerous echo events. Florida State University Libraries proudly hosted an edit-a-thon this spring, a collaborative effort by Prof. Joelle Dietrick in the Dept. of Art and Jessica Evans Brady, our Arts Librarian. I think many people would challenge my labeling this as digital scholarship, but I’d argue that this project functions like and achieves all the same goals as iDigBio, perhaps in a more meaningful and evident way to a non-scholarly audience.


That last point leads to what I consider to be more important questions that we all must contend with: must scholarship have a scholarly audience in order to be valued? What about teaching? How far can the boundaries of “digital” be pressed before it is just, plain old scholarship?

The definition game is something we will continue to walk through, but my involvement in this moment of scholarly inquiry is to suggest that what we think we know about how scholarly products are valued and measured could probably use a refresh.

5 thoughts on “What is Digital Scholarship?”

    1. Micah Vandegrift – Tallahassee, FL – As the Open Knowledge Librarian at NCSU Libraries, Micah builds programs, initiatives, and communities around the idea that "open" is a core and defining principle of our current era. Micah serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, and will be a 2018-2019 Fulbright-Schuman Fellow studying open research practices and infrastructure in The Netherlands and Denmark.
      Micah Vandegrift says:

      Relevancy. I think it used to be that if you didnt have a website, you didnt exist. Then(now) if you dont have digital content for people to interact with, they’ll look elsewhere for it (Google, Flickr, Wikipedia). 10 years from now I think itd be reasonable to think that people will expect an API to be able to pull the data and build on it themselves. So, for me, digital scholarship is not an answer to a problem necessarily, but an evolution of the library’s role in society.

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