Credit Where Credit's Due

Both individual scholars and departments are responsible for bringing digital scholarship into the mainstream, according to draft guidelines for evaluating such work published by the American Historical Association.

April 30, 2015

The American Historical Association will encourage “reciprocal responsibility” to advance digital scholarship in the discipline, according to draft guidelines the professional organization released on how to evaluate such work for tenure and review purposes.

Instead of putting the burden on departments to change, the AHA’s Committee on Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians recognizes in its draft guidelines that both individual scholars and departments are responsible for making digital scholarship an accepted and appropriately rewarded method of furthering careers and research in the discipline. 

“The focus of what we’ve done and the key to the guidelines as they exist now is to say that we need to focus on the scholarly content and the scholarly interventions that a particular work is making,” said Seth Denbo, the AHA’s director of publications and scholarly communication. “As scholars of history, we’ve sailed these kinds of methodological ships before.”

The lack of guidelines certainly hasn't prevented historians from creating digital scholarship, and AHA conference meetings regularly feature sessions on how to use technology in teaching and research. But many pretenure scholars say they fear the lack of guidelines means they will have to produce traditional scholarship on top of their digital projects in order to be competitive on the job market. Many hope that this project, like similar initiatives in other disciplines, can ease such concerns and help senior faculty members make hiring and tenure decisions.

For academics, the AHA guidelines are clear: explain what you’re doing. At each step of a digital research project, scholars “have a responsibility to be as clear as possible… about the ways that the digital medium contributes to their contribution to the scholarly conversation,” according to the guidelines. Candidates also “need to provide explanatory narratives as a prelude” to presenting that work to a review committee.

Departments, meanwhile, need to be “prepared to face the challenges” of evaluating digital scholarship. Most importantly, that means they must “embrace at a fundamental level the possible, even the probable, appearance of highly qualified candidates whose preferred practice of digital history significantly challenges print and perhaps other forms of disciplinary orthodoxy.” 

In some cases, the guidelines continue, that won’t be a difficult task; the scholarship may be as simple as an article published in a fully online journal. But other examples will challenge established notions of how to review job candidates as departments become familiar with “the myriad uses of digital technology for research, teaching, pedagogy and even some that might be described as service.”

The AHA is attempting to create what Denbo described as a “living document” that will be flexible enough to include new technology and broad enough to be relevant to all institutions, from research universities to community colleges.

The AHA will have to play its part to make digital scholarship more common. The committee recommends the organization form a group of scholars who will stay up-to-date on advances in technology and make themselves available to departments as experts, suggesting they make regular appearances in AHA Today and Perspectives on History. The AHA could also highlight exceptional work in an online gallery and work with the American Historical Review to review digital projects.

Committee chair Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, said the guidelines are intended to “clear as much space as possible” for academics across the spectrum of higher education.

“What we’re trying to do is to encourage people to experiment with whatever degree of innovation seems appropriate for the task that they’re performing,” Ayers said. “If people want to do something transformative -- to really question fundamental assumptions about the way we make sense of the past -- we think they should be encouraged to do so as long as they can explain why they’re doing it.”

The AHA is not the only professional organization working on finalizing such guidelines. The College Art Association and the Society for Architectural Historians have partnered on a similar initiative and are expected to introduce resolutions to their boards later this year.

“It’s in some ways knowing our discipline rather than knowing what other disciplines are doing,” Denbo said, although he added that there is “value” in looking at what other associations have done. “Thinking about what historians value and providing credit for what we do for our scholarships is where the core of this thing comes from.”

Peter K. Bol, the Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, said members of the AHA committee looked at how other professional organizations have tackled the question of evaluating digital scholarship before crafting their own guidelines. The Modern Language Association, for example, approved its guidelines in 2012. Bol said the AHA’s draft guidelines are largely similar.

The MLA guidelines also come with specific recommendations for individual scholars and departments, for example.

“I do not see a fundamental difference in purpose or standards, but I think the AHA explains more and is well thought out in terms of responsibilities of the department and the individual and a recognition of the different kinds of possibilities for digital scholarship (e.g., that it can mean a collaborative project),” Bol, who also serves as Harvard’s vice provost of advances in learning, said in an email.

Comparing the two associations’ guidelines, Ayers said the AHA’s will reflect that research in history tends to be “more empirical” and “archive reliant” than literature studies.

“It’s great the MLA guidelines came out when they did,” Ayers said. “Obviously things have evolved since then, so it’s kind of our turn to take the baton and hope we can advance it a little bit.”

The draft guidelines are now open to comment, and Denbo said he welcomed input from historians. According to the timeline, the committee is scheduled to release a final draft this fall, which will be voted on in January. 

A small focus group of department chairs reviewed an early version of the guidelines, from which the public draft was adapted, Denbo said. Ayers said not much changed between the two drafts.

“It feels great to see so much agreement,” Ayers said. “It’s an important stage in the discipline, but also for American higher education, and we’re just trying to live up to the possibilities of the moment.”


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