Digital Publishing

I’ve been interested in the question of publishing and sharing research for some time now. This weeks readings provided some perspectives from the digital humanities on the problem of documenting the process of historical representation and the question of reputation. Dan Cohen coined the phenomena academic value as the “social contract of scholarly publishing.” Giving credit to the late Roy Rosenzweig for setting the idea in his mind, Cohen concludes that the academic outline and style of a publication leads to an implicit contract between author and reader. Basically they agree that the book is worth “a serious read.” Cohen states that digital humanities “strive to reproduce the magic of the traditional social contract of the book.”

William G. Thomas was amongst the first historians who prepared a history journal article. His account on the process of “Writing A Digital History Journal Article from Scratch” reflects on the specific nature of a digital article. I was surprised that the cultural historian Robert Darnton (Great Cat Massacre, 1984) was interested in digital publishing, and actually was an influence for Thomas. “The Differences Slavery Made” was published by the American Historical Review. Besides a printed summery that appeared in the journal, the article basically is a website. Thomas not only describes the rationale behind the form of the publication but also the reactions the piece received from peer-reviewers.

In contrast to the century old tradition of highly structured scholarly articles, Thomas and his coauthor decided to break the narrative in actively using hyperlinks. Their website/article intends to expose the work of the historian, in making the interpretive decisions and the evidence open for others. I found it convincing, that the authors embraced their argument that “slavery is too tightly interwoven throughout Southern society to stand alone as a unit of analysis” in the form of presentation. Unsurprisingly, some scholars found the piece difficult to read as an article because it has no linear structure. Still, “The Differences Slavery Made” has received a high use. Thomas mentions that the average reader requested eighteen pages from the article and spent over fifteen minutes on a visit to the site. I wonder what effect the opportunity to track the use of digitally published works might have on academia. I think it was Habermas who said about Adorno/Horkheimer’s “Dialektik der Aufklärung” that probably only a handful of people read the whole “masterpiece” of his mentors. It’s at the same time interesting and unsettling to imagine that the impact and reputation of a scholar might be measured in terms such as “time spent with the article” in the future.

Cohen emphasizes that the acceptance for digital publishing depends on the reader: “We need to work much more on the demand side if we want to move the social contract forward into the digital age.” He mentions “value triggers” that uplift the reputation of digital print. I agree with Cohen that “there are social conventions surrounding print that are worth challenging.“ Doubtless, digital equivalents to footnotes, bibliographies, or appendices can enrich history with new qualities. It appears that the digital article likely will undergo a process of standardization. Rather than a fancy webdesign, scholarly publishing requires standards in format and publishers that believe in the credo digital first.


1st year MA student in Public History, Northeastern University

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