Reviewing Digital Scholarship

I was interested in Jennifer Howard’s May 23rd Hot Type report on complaints that digital scholarship in the humanities is not receiving adequate critical notice. Howard offered the Gutenberg-e digital-history project as an example of a series of born-digital books that received very few reviews in the appropriate history journals. And she quoted the director of the University of Virginia Press (Penny Kaiserlian) as saying that Rotunda, her digital imprint, was not usually receiving reviews from scholarly journals. The question, Howard said, is “how to get academe’s gatekeepers to take digital work seriously.” But she also noted that some scholarly journals (her example was The Journal of American History) do produce reviews of Web sites and other digital material, and she cited Jerry McGann’s Nines, and the Digital Humanities Quarterly to show that there are at least a few interesting attempts to peer review born-digital scholarship. Clearly, we need public scholarly review of published humanities scholarship, no matter what the medium of publication.

My first reaction to Howard’s piece was to be surprised that more traditional scholarly journals do not regularly review humanities e-books. There is no technical difficulty in sending links for such material to appropriate reviewers, and most e-books do not require special technical facility of reviewers. This is because, alas, many e-books are little more than digitized text. And most of the leading humanities journals now appear in electronic form, so that links to them can be easily provided. But of course this would not get us very far, since there are so few born-digital humanities books being produced. As more are produced, however, and as they make more use of the potential of the electronic medium, journal editors will need to be on the lookout for reviewers who have the technical competence to assess the full range of attributes of these “books” and “articles.”

The larger problem, one that Howard does not discuss fully, is that most of the born-digital material in the humanities takes the form of digital databases (Web sites) that are formally distinguishable from books and articles. Take the University of Virginia Press Rotunda imprint. Kaiserlian and her colleagues are mounting most of what has been called the Papers of the Founding Fathers. This involves (in most cases) retroactive conversion of the dozens of published volumes of the annotated papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which are fully searchable in a single database. It also involves the mounting of what will probably be an increasing amount of material that has not yet been edited by the editorial projects in a project called Founders Early Access. It has always been difficult to attract satisfactory reviews of newly edited source materials of this type, even in the print environment, but now we will need reviews that inform scholars of what are the idiosyncratic opportunities (and difficulties) of the digital environment.

We are fortunate that there are at least a few humanities projects that regularly review born-digital material, but I think the more urgent need is for all of the major humanities journals to develop the interest and capacity for reviewing digital scholarship as a matter of course. I think we already have the potential for engaging in digital peer review, and if that is correct, the real challenge is to mainstream digital scholarship and scholarly criticism.

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