A History of Place 3: Dead Trees and Digital Content

The stated aim of this series of posts is to reflect on what it means to write a book in the Digital Humanities. This is not a subject one can address without discussing how digital content and paper publication can work together. I need to say at the outset that A History of Place does not have any digital content per se. Therefore, what follows is a more general reflection of what seems to be going on at the moment, perhaps framing what I’d like to do for my next book.

It is hardly a secret that the world of academic publication is not particularly well set up for the publication of digital research data. Of course the “prevailing wind” in these waters is the need for high-quality publications to secure scholarly reputation, and with it the keys to the kingdom of job security, tenure and promotion. As long as DH happens in universities, the need to publish in order to be tenured and promoted is not going to go away  There is also the symbiotically related need to satisfy the metrics imposed by governments and funding agencies. In the UK for example, the upcoming Research Excellence Framework exercise explicitly sets out to encourage (ethically grounded) Open Access publication, but this does nothing to problematize the distinction, which is particularly acute in DH, between peer-reviewed research outputs (which can be digital or analogue) and research data, which is perforce digital only. Yet research data publication is a fundamental intellectual requirement for many DH projects and practitioners. There is therefore a paradox of sorts, a set of shifting and, at times, conflicting motivations and considerations, which those contemplating such are faced with.

It seems to be that journals and publishers are responding to this paradox in two ways. The first facilitates the publication of traditional articles online, albeit short ones, which draw on research datasets which are deposited elsewhere, and to require certain minimum standards of preservation, access and longevity. Ubiquity Press’s Journal of Open Archaeological Data, as the name suggests, follows this model. It describes its practice thus:

JOAD publishes data papers, which do not contain research results but rather a concise description of a dataset, and where to find it. Papers will only be accepted for datasets that authors agree to make freely available in a public repository. This means that they have been deposited in a data repository under an open licence (such as a Creative Commons Zero licence), and are therefore freely available to anyone with an internet connection, anywhere in the world.

In order to be accepted, the “data paper” must reference a dataset which has been accepted for accession in one of 11 “recommended repositories”, including, for example, the Archaeology Data Service and Open Context. It recommends that more conventional research papers then reference the data paper.

The second response is more monolithic, where a publisher takes on both the data produced by or for the publication, and hosts/mounts it online. One early adopter of this model is Stanford University Press’s digital scholarship project, which seeks to

[A]dvance a publishing process that helps authors develop their concept (in both content and form) and reach their market effectively to confer the same level of academic credibility on digital projects as print books receive.

In 2014, when I spent a period at Stanford’s Center for Electronic and Spatial Text Analysis, I was privileged to meet Nicolas Bauch, who was working on SUP’s first project of this type, Enchanting the Desert. This wonderful publication presents and discusses the photographic archive of Henry Peabody, who visited the Grand Canyon in 1879, and produced a series of landscape photographs. Bauch’s work enriches the presentation and context of these photographs by showing them alongside viewsheds of the Grand Canyon from the points where they were taken, this providing a landscape-level picture of what Peabody himself would have perceived.

However, to meet the mission SUP sets out in the passage quoted above requires significant resources, effort and institutional commitment over the longer term. It also depends on the preservation not only of the data (which JOAD does by linking to trusted repositories), but also the software which keeps the data accessible and usable. This in turn presents the problem encapsulated rather nicely in the observation that data ages like a fine wine, whereas software applications age like fish (much as I wish I could claim to be the source of this comparison, I’m afraid I can’t). This is also the case where a book (or thesis) produces data which in turn depends on a specialized third-party application. A good example of this would be 3D visualization files that need Unity or Blender, or GIS shapefiles which need ESRI plugins. These data will only be useful as long as those applications are supported.

My advice therefore to anyone contemplating such a publication, which potentially includes advice to my future self, is to go for pragmatism. Bearing in mind the truism about wine and fish, and software dependency, it probably makes sense to pare down the functional aspect on any digital output, and focus on the representational, i.e. the data itself. Ideally, I think one would go down the JOAD route, and have one’s data and deposit one’s data in a trusted repository, which has the professional skills and resources to keep the data available. Or, if you are lucky enough to work for an enlightened and forward-thinking Higher Education Institution, a better option still would be to have its IT infrastructure services accession, publish and maintain your data, so that it can be cross-referred with your paper book which, in a wonderfully “circle of life” sort of way, will contribute to the HEI’s own academic standing and reputation.

One absolutely key piece of advice – probably one of the few aspects of this, in fact, that anyone involved in such a process would agree on – is that any Universal Resource Indicators you use must be reliably persistent. This was the approach we adopted in the Heritage Gazetteer of Cyprus project, one of whose main aims was to provide a structure for URI references to toponyms that was both consistent and persistent, and thus citable – as my colleague Tassos Pappacostas demonstrated in his online Inventory of Byzantine Churches on Cyprus, published alongside the HGC precisely to demonstrate the utility of persistent URIs for referencing. As I argue in Chapter 7 of A History of Place in fact, developing resources which promote the “citability” of place, and link the flexibility of spatial web annotations with the academic authority of formal gazetteer and library structures is one of the key challenges for the spatial humanities itself.

I do feel that one further piece of advice needs a mention, especially when citing web pages rather than data. Ensure the page is archived using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, then cite the Wayback link, as advocated earlier this year here:

This is very sound advice, as this will ensure persistence even the website itself depreciates.

Returning to the publication of data alongside a print publication however: the minimum one can do is simply purchase a domain name and publish the data oneself, alongside the book. This greatly reduces the risk of obsolescence, keeps you in control, and recognizes the fact that books start to date the moment they are published by their very nature.

All these approaches require a certain amount of critical reduction of the idea that publishing a book is a railway buffer which marks the conclusion of a major part of one’s career. Remember – especially if you are early career –  that this will not be the last thing you ever publish, digitally or otherwise. Until those bells and whistles hybrid digital/paper publishing model arrive, it’s necessary to remember that there are all sorts of ways data can be preserved, sustained and form a valuable part of a “traditional” monograph. The main thing for your own monograph is to find the one that fits, and it may be that you have to face down the norms and expectations of the traditional academic monograph, and settle for something that works, as opposed to something that is perfect.

Author: stuartdunn

I do various things, but mainly I am a Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at King's College London's . My interests include things computational, cartographic and archaeological.

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