Research in the Future: Creating, Disseminating, and Evaluating New Knowledge

Sandria B. Freitag, November 1998

"Doing History in the 21st Century"—this was the rubric used by the AHA in its planning discussions in 1995-96. How will we teach history using new technologies? Will these enable us to connect teaching and research in new and effective ways? How will we publish research results? What new forms will those essential tools used to communicate history—the monographic book and article—take? Will they change the practice of history? What are the implications for tenure and promotion connected to these fundamental questions about disseminating new knowledge?

As the AHA discussed the future of history during its planning sessions, a constellation of issues became identified that shared research as their common center. Several of these issues have served as repeat topics in this column since that time. Perhaps the most prominent has been the "endangered monograph"—that combination of developments that has eroded the library market for monographic books (due to spiraling science serials prices imposed by commercial publishers). The disappearance of the library market has meant that academic presses could not recover their costs of production, leading in turn to a very different mix of monographs and general interest publications in their lists.

Juxtaposed, and related, to the "endangered monograph" issue have been several others, including the constraints to fair use being built into new intellectual property legislation (affecting most directly the connections between teaching and research), the potential of the new technologies for broader dissemination of research, and the need to reduce the reliance of tenure and advancement committees on publishers' decisions. The AHA has approached this constellation of issues in a number of different ways, beginning to work through its committee and division structure and, where promising, seeking external partners. Several topics have been identified for committee attention.

Authentic Evaluation of Research Contributions

The first topic involves evaluating scholarship without undue reliance on publishing decisions. The Council and divisions have recognized the publishers' lament regarding departmental dependence on press evaluations of scholarship. Now more than ever before, academic presses begin with many good manuscripts, but must make decisions about publishing monographs based not on the intrinsic value of the research involved, but on the size of the market (and, therefore, the ability of a title to recover its production costs); fewer and fewer manuscripts survive this deliberation. Those that do not (and are then published by "lesser" presses, or do not find an outlet at all) are often penalized in campus tenure review decisions. The AHA is beginning to work from three different angles to address this problem. First, an ad hoc committee is being organized to explore the creation of guidelines for history departments and campus committees on other ways to evaluate scholarship. (This resonates with an interesting thread on the AHA department chairs' listserv, which has been comparing practices across departments on the use—and recompense—of external reviewers.) Second, the Research Division is preparing a statement of good practices that underscores the role of research in all faculty functions, and will link departmental support for research to better evaluation practices. Third, President-Elect Robert Darnton has secured Council approval in principle of a new prize for electronic publishing, designed to signal to departments the legitimacy of this form of dissemination. It is clear that the AHA could contribute substantively to a rethinking on campuses of the ways in which scholarship (especially of younger faculty) is evaluated.

Electronic Communication of Research

A subcommittee of the Research Division is approaching the cluster of issues around the question of research dissemination from another angle—that of communicating article-format monographic work through an electronic American Historical Review. This committee must grapple with a number of questions about how print and electronic versions will complement each other; how access will be achieved, and to whose benefit; how the journal will link up with other AHA publications so that the services provided to members will be tangible and obvious; even how the decision-making process can be designed and reported on to benefit other journals with fewer resources. Although the offering of an electronic version of the AHR will be accomplished in stages, and only the most basic digitized equivalent to the print version will be offered at the beginning, from its inception an E-AHR poses possibilities and complexities about how communicating scholarship will alter in the future.

Beyond this work within its governance structure, the AHA has also been exploring with potential partners two key projects that could function at a level so much larger in scope that they promise to change forever how we have thought about the creation and dissemination of new knowledge. The changes do not relate to the form this history writing will take, but to the scale at which it will be compatible and accessible. All of the planning work assumes that print and electronic formats will continue, and that they are complementary in what they accomplish for scholars. Indeed, many in academic publishing are now beginning to argue that, as the unit cost of print-on-demand begins to decline to viable levels, print will not disappear, but will simply become one option users may choose, once they have browsed electronically. After two and a half years of careful planning among many types of potential partners, these two linked projects are now ready to be implemented. Their timing is ideal, as this is also a moment when new sources of funding are beginning to emerge. Electronic publishing is an expensive activity, with many front-loaded development costs and unanswered implementation questions (because there are virtually no existing models), and the possibility of new sources of funding is therefore crucial to real progress.

The first of these projects has been described in this column before (Perspectives, November 1997): it rests on a broad collaboration to electronically publish a large critical mass of monographic research that spreads the risk (currently borne entirely by academic presses) among presses, libraries and library organizations, societies, campuses, and print-on-demand vendors (both not-for-profit and commercial). A focus on a single discipline—history—promises a crucial advantage not now available either in print or in any small-scale electronic pilot program; the new collection will bring together the lists of several publishers in a compatible format that encourages searching and browsing across what in print would be proprietorial dividing lines. Aiming at a broad range of complementary materials such as monographs, primary sources, documentary editions, and student learning exercises to inculcate discernment in using digitized sources, the new collection also will offer advantages—to faculty for teaching, to researchers for the latest research results, and to library subscribers—that have never been possible from one source before.1 It is assumed (from the results of current electronic projects) that users will browse the materials in electronic form but will want printed material with which to work in depth; for this reason, the original collection will be digitized, but various print-on-demand options will also be made available. Over the next six months the partners to mount this enterprise will establish a new nonprofit organization that rests on complementary functions and contributions from the partners in the society, library, and press worlds. They will design an experimental format for their collaboration that will enable the academy to learn more about how e-monographic work will be used, how cost-recovery mechanisms can be designed that will keep disseminators of research in business, and how to link electronic materials with print-on-demand capabilities. They will pursue external funding sources for those parts of the production pipeline that cannot be covered by in-kind contributions.

In this first electronic project, then, a number of important goals for historians and the academy can be targeted. Most important in the long run, perhaps, is a goal for the collection of materials that has been urged on us by librarians: combine research results and teaching materials. The partners in this enterprise want to encourage students and nonspecialists to grapple with monographs, testing them out through exercises that teach students discernment in using web resources, and that implicitly make a statement about the importance of making research available to those who can move from a historian's conclusions back to the source materials and to other studies.

"Building Blocks" of New Knowledge

The mounting and distribution of compatibly formatted e-materials in this history project depends on a set of prior agreements on how best to prepare digitized materials. Reaching consensus on these matters involves far more than technical logistics, however. A number of potential models are out there, though none of them have been designed with historical studies in mind. In order to assess the options and to ensure that we move to a field-wide consensus by beginning with the needs of the discipline, a second and related project is underway, again with a number of partners. This project is especially interesting because it will be situated within a larger effort to conduct similar conversations in half-a-dozen fields in the humanities, with the results juxtaposed to help humanists delineate for computing specialists and funders what the particular technological needs are for representing knowledge in the humanities. Called "building blocks," the parallel projects in literature, religion and philosophy, performance arts, and other fields are being organized by a joint steering committee that is building on a set of discussions sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Academy of Sciences, and facilitated by the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage, an increasingly visible player in this world of new technology.

The project within history, like its parallels in the other fields, will bring together those who "do" history in a wide range of ways to identify a core of practices and priorities that characterize history as it is now practiced, and as it has been practiced, over time.2 (A number of ACLS societies and other organizations will be invited to participate, to ensure that the widest range of voices will be heard.) Once a range of characterizations has been made, participants will explore how the new technologies will affect that practice: what will need to be protected in the current print world, what must be perpetuated to keep the heart of the discipline intact, and what new possibilities are presented by use of the new technologies. In turn, we hope that these identifications will lead to consensus on aspects of digitization (such as how best to prepare abstracts so that searches across electronic collections will open up intellectual possibilities rather than narrowing them down and what coding formats we should use that will enable consistency and searching across materials mounted by a range of publishers).

That this kind of discipline-specific effort can be conducted within a larger humanities discussion is especially valuable. It will enable us to pursue the issues of special significance to historians, and ensure that future electronic projects work to meet these needs. But it will also make it possible to investigate the applicability of history-based experiments for other humanities disciplines, thus leveraging what we learn so that our investments (and of those offering funding support) can pay off broadly for the scholarly and educational community. Moreover, the humanities-wide discussions enable us to work directly with computing specialists to ensure that new programs and technologies are designed with humanists' needs in minds (instead of humanists having to twist themselves like pretzels to fit existing programs). And the discussions frame the enterprise in ways that have already proven of interest to those traditionally responsible for funding science projects, thus opening up new possible sources of funds for the humanities.

For the first time in probably a decade, then, historians have a number of reasons to become optimistic about future creation, dissemination, and evaluation of a key part of our work—research. We have ways, as an association and a field, to more effectively tie research to teaching, to evaluate the history we are creating, and to communicate with each other and the larger world.

Notes

1. The collection will concentrate on areas neglected by commercial collections, thus facilitating better offerings especially in nonwestern and world history topics.

2. The identification of patterns over time will be an important part of the analysis.