Prototyping a Curated Scholarly Publication: Digital Humanities Now

This post is part of a series that reflects on three years of research on sourcing and circulating scholarly communication on the open web. In the coming weeks we will share our discoveries, processes, and code developed through rapid prototyping and iterative design: the PressForward plugin for WordPress; the collaboratively-edited weekly publication Digital Humanities Now; and the experimental overlay Journal of Digital Humanities. We hope these resources will encourage and assist others who wish to collect, select, and share content from the web with an engaged community of readers.

Is it possible for scholars to scan the rapidly growing corpus of scholarship available on the open web? How can communities identify relevant and timely materials and share these discoveries with peers? Anyone who tries to stay current with new research and conversations in their field — ourselves included — faces an overwhelming amount of material scattered across the web. For the past three years the PressForward team has been experimenting with methods for catching and highlighting web-based scholarly communication by concurrently developing our Digital Humanities Now (DHNow) publication and our PressForward plugin for WordPress.

It is important to note that nothing about this scholarly communication problem is specific to the digital humanities, and neither is our solution: we prototyped a generic model for any community who wishes to build a lightweight, collaboratively-edited publication both sourced from, and published on, the open web. In this post I provide a brief overview of the development of DHNow and the PressForward plugin, and introduce our approach to issues of scope, scale, and value. Through publishing DHNow I have concluded that surfacing scholarship from the open web is most manageable when done by an editorial group with committed volunteers.

Prototyping Digital Humanities Now

The digital humanities community — drawn from the overlapping worlds of humanities scholars and teachers, technologists, librarians and archivists, and cultural heritage professionals — has long actively created, shared, and discussed their work on the open web. As individual publishing becomes easier through blogs and microblogs, our community of practice monitors an increasingly overwhelming number of web feeds and Twitter accounts to see what our colleagues are producing and thinking. In an attempt to reduce duplicative efforts and increase the visibility of informally published materials, in 2009 Dan Cohen, then Director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, created Digital Humanities Now (DHNow) as a weekly publication to highlight relevant and timely work in this emerging field.

Since 2009, DHNow has maintained a constant niche in the scholarly communication ecosystem for digital humanities. Rather than focusing solely on one discipline, genre, medium, topic, or method, DHNow intentionally distributes gray literature, or works that lack venues for formal publication. Every week DHNow highlights salient content in any form as “Editors’ Choice,” by providing an excerpt and link to the original site of publication. Additional links are provided to news items such as jobsresources, funding and opportunities, CFPs and conferencesreports, and announcements.

Even though our mission remains consistent, we are rapidly adjusting the processes, technologies, and communities behind DHNow. From fewer than 300 feeds and Twitter profiles in 2011, we now aggregate content from nearly 700 feeds. We have moved from using Google products to read, nominate, and discuss content, to using our own PressForward plugin for editorial workflow. We have grown from an individual editor in 2009, to core group of three co-editors in 2011, to a staff of graduate student assistants and faculty who rotate as weekly editor-in-chief, responsible for selecting and preparing the featured works. Most importantly, we have welcomed over 200 volunteer “editors-at-large” who filter through the aggregated content and nominate pieces for broader distribution.

These adjustments to our sources and editorial pool in turn have influenced our development of the PressForward plugin. In order to facilitate collaborative editing, we designed an interface for editors to read and nominate the items from the feed they find valuable and relevant for broader distribution. In order to incorporate content from beyond our feeds, we created the Nominate This! bookmarklet feature to excerpt and attribute content from any web page. By rapidly iterating DHNow, we have built a publication and technology that reflects our priorities of community sourcing and collaborative editing.

Scope

While the scope of DHNow has remained constant — English-language materials related to digital humanities that are informally published on the open web and aggregated through web feeds — the feeds in our source base and the works distributed through DHNow have shifted over time.

The source base for DHNow has always been public and open to self-nominations. At several points we have intentionally researched new sources and actively sought input from our readership. The addition of volunteer editors-at-large in 2012 has greatly increased the range of genres, materials, and fields circulated by DHNow, beyond those included in our feed subscriptions. Moreover, we created the Nominate This! bookmarklet for the PressForward plugin to allow any editor to nominate content from anywhere on the open web for distribution through DHNow.

Responsibility for the final selection and preparation of materials for distribution remains with PressForward graduate research assistants and faculty. Frequent adjustments to workflows and our need to beta test the technologies we are developing requires regular communication among the editorial group. Publishing DHNow also provides an opportunity for graduate students to lead the development of various aspects of a web publication, such as redesigning the website (Sasha Hoffman) or the process and materials for managing the editors-at-large (Jeri Wieringa and Amanda Morton). Moreover, editing DHNow provides a learning experience for our graduate students as they develop their own research and skill portfolios.

Scale

As of May 2014, DHNow aggregates approximately 400 individual posts each week from nearly 700 feeds from websites in all areas of digital humanities practice into our WordPress installation using the PressForward plugin. Having the technical ability to collect potential content in one place through web feeds does not alleviate the need for critical eyes to identify salient material, however.

As the number of practitioners and students of digital humanities has increased, DHNow‘s source base and community readership have grown rapidly. After developing a manageable workflow and process, in Summer 2012 we invited volunteers to join us as “editors-at-large.” For the past two years approximately six volunteers per week scan our feeds and nominate content for distribution. The addition of volunteer editors-at-large had an immediate and positive impact on the publication:

  • expanded the interests and networks of editorial pool;
  • diversified the materials surfaced and highlighted by DHNow;
  • decreased the amount of time required by in-house editorial staff to select items for circulation; and
  • increased community investment in the publication.

Given our broad scope and large source base it would be nearly impossible for one or two volunteers to monitor, select, and share materials for DHNow on the same weekly schedule. For DHNow, the expanded editorial pool helps to accommodate an increasing number of sources and growing field at the same time it expands the participation by our scholarly community.

Value

Because DHNow is invested in raising the visibility of scholarship on the open web, we measure its value not only in terms of the quantifiable numbers of readers, but also community participation and role in the communication ecosystem. The inaugural winner of a digital humanities community award, in the past few years DHNow has greatly expanded our readership who access the publication via the website, Twitter, and our own feed. Given the digital humanities community’s active use of social media and the web, the wide reach of DHNow can be tracked through the engagement of our 14,000 Twitter followers (up from 2,000 in 2011), in addition to the hundreds of readers of the featured pieces each week, and over time, as recorded in our server statistics.

Truly a community publication, in both the material featured and volunteer participation, DHNow also has a growing pool of volunteer editors, many of whom are new to the field. In fact, many volunteers report that their desire to survey the large amount of diverse work occurring in the field is their reason for volunteering. For the graduate assistants at RRCHNM, reviewing and selecting content for DHNow is an important component of their training.

Because DHNow distributes scholarly works that lack formal venues for publication, we also measure its value in its consistency and long-term use. By regularly surfacing scholarship first informally published online, DHNow reveals the large amount of gray literature that reflects and inspires dynamic work and conversation in the digital humanities. As a feeder to the more selective Journal of Digital Humanities, DHNow also provides an opportunity for informally released works to circulate and receive feedback before developing into formal publications. We are proud that DHNow and Journal of Digital Humanities regularly appear on course syllabi. For our thousands of readers, DHNow clearly fills an unmet need in the communication ecosystem of this expanding community of practice. (Be on the lookout for future posts with more details about the readership and reach of DHNow and role of the Journal of Digital Humanities.)

Customizing Our Prototype

Scholarly communities can easily develop their own curated publication by customizing the scope and the scale of their content priorities, source base, and editorial group. My experience with DHNow suggests that communities will coalesce around intellectual work that is shared freely, no matter the medium, genre, or amount of polish. It is our hope that the success of DHNow will encourage other communities to value and disseminate scholarly work from the open web.

Check back next week for an introduction to the intellectual and practical considerations for initiating and sustaining your own publication in my five-part Guide to Curating Scholarship from the Open Web!

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