From the Publishing History column of the May 2002 Perspectives

Digital Technology and Historical Scholarship: A Publishing Experiment

Kate Wittenberg, May 2002

As the difficulties with publication of monographs in some fields of history intensify, and as digital technology continues to make inroads into the world of scholarly communication, it is becoming increasingly important to explore the potential of electronic publication in disseminating academic work. While many are discussing the theoretical issues involved in publishing in this new medium, there are already several experiments underway that are producing examples of peer-reviewed electronic publications in the field of history. One such project, which is exploring a range of issues involved in the field of e-publishing in history, including the role of peer review, academic credit, historical narrative and multimedia scholarship, and collaborative authoring and publication, is the Gutenberg-e Prizes program.

Since 1999, the AHA has awarded Gutenberg-e prizes each year to six outstanding dissertations. For the first three years the fields were chosen because they were identified as areas that were becoming "endangered" in the scholarly publishing field. The first group of prizewinning works covered a range of subjects in the fields of South Asian, African, and Latin American history. The process of developing these manuscripts into electronic works has resulted in publications that represent a combination of the most distinguished and innovative scholarship combined with creative and thoughtful use of digital technology.

The dissertations are selected as a result of a rigorous academic review and then undergo a revision and development process that involves a close collaboration between the authors and the electronic publishing staff at Columbia University's Electronic Publishing Initiative. The electronic works contain elements that cannot be conveyed in the print medium—extensive documentation, hyperlinks to supplementary literature, images, music, video, and links to archives. While the text can be printed out and read in the traditional way, these multimedia works of history are most effectively experienced as electronic projects, and it is in their fully functional format that they offer the most interesting view of the potential of this new field.

A Collaborative Process

The complexity of the editorial and technical aspects of this approach to scholarly communication requires a kind of collaboration among authors, editors, technologists, and web designers that is quite different from the traditional publishing process. The collaboration that has resulted in the publication of these highly original and innovative works of history is one of the most interesting aspects of the Gutenberg-e project, and deserves some discussion.

In a traditional publishing experience with a scholarly work, an author works mostly alone in revising a dissertation that has been accepted for publication. Once the revision is complete, the author submits the manuscript to the publishers, at which point it goes into the production process and the publishing staff takes over to see the publication of the printed book through.

In contrast, the authors of the Gutenberg-e works experience the revision and publication process as more of a collaboration with the publishing staff. The collaboration formally occurs through a series of workshops in which the authors come to Columbia for two-day meetings with the editors, web developer, designer, and programmer working on their project. During these meetings the author and staff exchange ideas, address concerns, identify problems, and develop the editorial, design, and technical strategies for transforming the dissertation onto an online work. Between workshops, the collaboration continues via e-mail and phone calls. As a result of such continual interaction, authors often gain new insights into their project's organization and presentation. In several cases, the conceptualization and plan for the project as a whole is developed through this collaboration.

As a result of this collaborative process of development, authors and publishers become active partners in the creation of new kinds of scholarly work. The electronic publishing organization thus takes on the role of a research center that can help to create new models of historical scholarship, with the technology staff as colleagues who lead innovation because they understand the potential of information technology to affect the ways in which people use scholarly materials.

Reaction within the Field

Once the complex process of developing and designing these scholarly works is complete, the next major challenge is to make certain that they are accepted within the academic world as significant scholarly contributions that are equivalent to their print counterparts. A rigorous academic review process was put in place by the AHA at the initial phase of the project in the form of a committee that selects the best works to receive the prize. The second phase of this process is the review that takes place after publication of the electronic work. In this connection, we have received considerable help from Michael Grossberg, the editor of the American Historical Review, as well as editors of other history journals. As a result of the discussions that have occurred, the AHA has approved a set of guidelines for reviewing electronic publications recommending that they be reviewed alongside other publications in their field, rather than separating them out into a special section. The guidelines also recommend that reviewers consider the ways in which the historical scholarship is enhanced or otherwise affected by the use of digital technology in the publication.

Once the publications are reviewed, the key to their acceptance lies within the university itself. Certain elements must be in place to create an environment conducive to innovation, including an interested and responsive faculty (at both a senior and junior level) and leaders within the various parts of the university who can play a critical role in encouraging the creation and acceptance of new models for scholarly communication. The leaders who voice concern about the crisis in print monograph publishing in history are the people who should now step forward and express interest in experiments that explore new models for disseminating the scholarship.

The Role of Technology

In the Gutenberg-e publications, we are not simply digitizing print, but using and integrating technology at a deeper level, so that it enriches both content and functionality. Examples from the unfolding project indicate that the ways in which digital technology is used will vary greatly depending on the nature of the historical work.

Some of the Gutenberg-e publications will appear to be much like their print counterparts in their appearance and form, and will use the electronic environment primarily to enhance their ability to present additional documentary materials. Other works will be more radically transformed by the new medium, and will provide an example of how digital technology can present opportunities for rethinking the role of narrative; experiment with nonlinear organization of historical content; expand the role of images, audio, and video in scholarly discourse; incorporate the use of links to archival materials within a scholarly work; and explore the possibilities for interactive discussions among scholars within a field through an online discussion forum.

We also understand, however, that we are publishing the Gutenberg-e project during a period of transition in the field of scholarly communication, in which digital publication of academic work is still in its earliest phase. Therefore, in order to help the authors make this transition with ease, we are providing a limited number of print versions of the text from their online books. These documents are designed for the authors to use in presenting their work in environments in which they feel that a printed text is required. This text should always be seen as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, the full online version of this work. The online works will be marketed and sold as a group, by annual subscription, to libraries and other academic institutions, which will provide access to all faculty, students, and staff on their university networks. Thus, access to the works will be seamless for the end user, who will be able to enter the site on a university computer or from anywhere else via a password, and download, read, and/or print one or all of the works.

In order to make certain that this project, and others like it, remains true to its purpose while still exploring opportunities for experimentation and innovation, it is helpful to keep in mind the vision for scholarly publishing in this new media. I believe it is critical that we maintain what is best about the traditional roles and skills of the players involved (historians, editors, publishers, and technologists); combine these strengths with an innovative yet realistic view of the academy, the publishing field, and the potential of technology; and think of ourselves as enablers of scholarly communication in all its forms.

—Kate Wittenberg is director of the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia, a division of Columbia University Press.