Harming the Historical Record

Scholars who run archival projects and university presses question shifts at NEH and apparent move away from peer review.
September 18, 2006

Scholars who work on large archival projects have struggled during the Bush administration. The president has repeatedly proposed eliminating the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which is one of the two federal programs that supports the intense, decades-long projects that involve editing and publishing of collections of documents. Congress has saved the program, but just barely.

Now the National Endowment for the Humanities has revamped the rules for the other major federal program that supports such work: Scholarly Editions Grants. According to scholars, the NEH has largely stopped using the peer review process for the program, and as a result, the grant process has become inconsistent and unreliable. Projects that had regularly been receiving grants saw their applications denied for no apparent reason.

And now the NEH has issued new guidelines -- just as scholars were finishing grant applications -- granting preference to those projects that make all of their documents freely available online. While the scholars who work on these projects support digitization (and generally do put their work online), they say that the humanities endowment's plan could make it impossible for university presses to afford to publish their work.

"We could be squandering years of key research, and huge investments we've all made in this work. This is just an incredible shame," said Leslie Rowland, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland at College Park, who directs a project to produce a nine-volume collection of documents, Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867.

The Association for Documentary Editing, a group that represents scholars like Rowland, sent a letter to the NEH asking for a meeting to discuss these issues. University press directors are also weighing in against the changes.

NEH officials said that they could not comment in any detail on the complaints being raised. An NEH spokesman said that all he could say was that officials were studying the "thoughtful letter" they had received from the Association for Documentary Editing and planned to meet "soon" with critics of the program's direction, and that "our support for scholarly editions continues unabated."

The work that relies on the NEH program in question is labor-intensive and long term. Small groups of scholars work -- many times over decades -- to find, select, edit, annotate and analyze the documents associated with a key figure (such as a president) or of an era. These projects rely on federal grants that are relatively small ($100,000 for a year is considered a good grant) compared to science research, but that play a key role in keeping these projects going.

The emancipation project at Maryland had received $420,000 over six years from the NEH before being rejected last year. Five of its volumes have already been published, and the series is being praised for mixing the "official" documents of the period with documents by or about individual slaves or freed slaves. Materials that the project has gathered and edited for publication are helping scholars redefine the period and elmentary school teachers explain history to children.

Rowland, director of the project, said that when the NEH was using outside experts to review the proposals, the peer review process produced reports that her project was having a major impact on the field. And the fact that it was promoting senior level scholarship and providing teaching tools for the schools is the kind of quality the the NEH tends to reward.

"They dropped the peer review and we didn't get funding for the first time," Rowland said.

That experience apparently isn't unique. In a letter to the NEH, Roger A. Bruns, president of the  Association for Documentary Editing, wrote that those reviewing the grant applications since peer review has been scaled back "lack familiarity" with the projects' goals and operations. These projects are long term, and yet scholars are seeing projects that had received steady support getting their first rejections, he wrote. NEH staffers are giving inconsistent guidance to scholars, telling them one year that annotation was "excessive" and then coming back to say that a corrected version is "too lean."

Stanley N. Katz, director of Princeton University's Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, said that he worried that the move away from peer review in this program was "part of a much larger issue at NEH, which seems to have an increasing reluctance to employ peer review in traditional ways." Katz said that he respected the NEH staff, but that the system used resulted in literary experts looking at historical projects or vice versa.

"What they are doing is decreasing the expert opinion that has been involved," he said.

Adding to the frustrations, Bruns wrote, is that the number of awards has been dropping steadily, from 61 in 1982 to 22 planned for this year.

Implications of Required Digitizing

Digital requirements that the endowment imposed at the last minute this year could create more problems, he wrote.

Without providing much detail on what this means, the NEH guidelines say that the agency will favor applications from projects that agree to put all their work online, free. That sounds good in theory, Bruns wrote, but raises all kinds of issues -- especially since the announcement came as a surprise.

"No electronic publication of any value and guaranteed permanence can be designed with two months lead time. Moreover, most editors already in the midst of ongoing book editions are not in a position to determine whether or not their work will appear in electronic form. Few, if any, project directors or host institutions control the rights to these editions," he wrote.

So the NEH is asking project directors to promise open access to material to which they don't own the rights, he said. Further, the publishers that frequently do own the rights have "made substantial financial investments in these editions with little or no profit to show for it," he wrote. Many of those university presses have developed or are developing models in which they put the materials online -- some of them free -- but forcing them to do so immediately isn't fair, he added.

Rowland of Maryland added that projects like hers -- while they may take decades to finish the work -- shut down when a project is over. As a result, she said, any digital project needs a permanent home, like a university press, so the publishers need to be brought into the conversation and not just told what model to adopt.

Thus far, university press leaders say that they haven't been consulted at all. "University presses have been publishing these editions for 30 to 40 years, so we're concerned to have these new guidelines come down without explanation," said Penelope J. Kaiserlian, director of the University of Virginia Press and president of the Association of American University Presses.

Virginia is a major player in archival series, publishing -- among others -- the Papers of George Washington and the Papers of James Madison. Much material from those projects is placed online, free, Kaiserlian said. But Virginia is also selling site licenses to libraries to enable them to have access to everything, while supporting the work that goes into the project.

Kaiserlian said that the NEH should be awarding its grants based on the quality of the scholarship and archival work, not a preference for one publishing model. And she said that the NEH needs to talk to those who actually do the work. It may well be possible to come up with a good solution that satisfies everyone, if all parties are involved, she said. "I don't want to rush to conclusions," Kaiserlian said, "but it's unclear what they are trying to do."


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