Evaluating Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

The world of research, teaching and publishing has been transformed by digital technology, yet many departments and institutions have not integrated new forms of scholarship into hiring, tenure and promotion guidelines. The need to do so is especially acute in areas like the humanities where collaborative projects and digital creative works do not fit the standard model of scholarly production. The resources below provide an introduction to debates and guidelines on this topic, organized into considerations for those who produce digital scholarship (“creators”) and to those who are responsible for hiring, promotion and tenure evaluation (“evaluators”).  

When evaluating digital scholarship, what “counts?”

The question of what “counts” as scholarship – as well as how hiring, tenure and promotion committees should evaluate digital work – has become critical in higher education, but this is not a new concern. As Mark Sample argued in his 2013 post “When Does Service Become Scholarship?”: “A creative or intellectual act becomes scholarship when it is public and circulates in a community of peers that evaluates and builds upon it.” This is particularly relevant for digital work, which is often published in non-traditional platforms online. In a 2013 piece for Inside Higher Ed, Ruth Starkman asks “What ‘Counts’?”, related to how departments are and should be evaluating digital scholarship.

The editors of the Journal of Digital Humanities emphasize the importance of assessment for digital scholarship in their introduction to the 2012 issue dedicated to this topic, “Closing the Evaluation Gap”.

The 2011 volume of the MLA Journal Profession also includes a section with numerous contributions on the subject of “Evaluating Digital Scholarship”.

Digital Scholarship at UB

In some disciplines, working with digital media has already been integrated in standard research and teaching models. Other disciplines are newly transforming the way they work. UB does not yet have an institution-wide policy on digital scholarship, but some departments look to professional organizations for guidance. For a list of professional associations with guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship, see “Information for Evaluators” below.

Information for Creators

Scholars who are engaged in research, teaching or publishing with digital media, or who create and collaborate on digital projects, may find the following resources helpful. Several topics are especially important in demonstrating the academic significance and public value of digital creative work: innovation, collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and research impact.

Because digital scholarship is not widely credited in the promotion and tenure process, scholars often do this work in more advanced stages of their career. This lack of career incentives for digital work can discourage graduate students and new faculty from pursuing innovative forms of scholarship, which could answer new research questions and generate new knowledge. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s article, “Do ‘the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities”, offers perspectives on the importance and potential of innovative scholarship early in an academic career.

Higher education is known for its disciplinary siloes, yet complex problems can benefit from multiple perspectives, methodologies and tools. Digital scholarship, including the digital humanities, provides opportunities to bridge these siloes and establish collaborative models. Examples of collaborative digital projects include Torn Apart/Separados and 1641 Depositions. For further reading, see Ethan Watrall’s article, “Building an Interdisciplinary Identity in a (Mostly) Non-Interdisciplinary World”.

In an era where the value of higher education is being questioned, public digital scholarship together with open access models can increase the impact of research and teaching beyond the academy. See, for example, Julie Ellison and Timothy K. Eatman’s contribution to Imagining America, “Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University”.

The Journal of Digital Humanities has published several articles that offer guidance to scholars who need to make the case for tenure and promotion but who may not have institutional guidelines for the evaluation of digital scholarship. “Documenting a New Media Case” offers a checklist of documents and example research report language that could help you make your case. The checklist and associated materials were developed by an online collaborative: the Evaluation Wiki of the Committee on Information Technology, Modern Language Association. In “Explaining Digital Humanities in Promotion Documents”, Katherine D. Harris shares a candidate’s statement for promotion to Associate Professor, incorporating evidence for her digital humanities, digital pedagogy, and scholarly editing work.

Information for Evaluators

In “Closing the Evaluation Gap,” contributors to this 2012 issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities offer a comprehensive look at issues from assessment to bibliographies, including a candidate’s statement for promotion and an open letter to a promotion and tenure committee regarding evaluating digital work. Particularly useful for academic review committees, department chairs, deans and provosts is Todd Presner’s article, “How to Evaluate Digital Scholarship”. Evaluators within libraries will find relevant guidelines in Zach Coble’s contribution, “Evaluating Digital Humanities Work: Guidelines for Librarians”.

Several professional associations have developed sample guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship throughout the hiring, promotion and tenure processes.

Peer review of digital scholarship plays an important role in the evaluation process, but finding forums for peer review of creative digital work can be challenging. Many journals and disciplinary digital networks now include reviews for digital projects, including archives, podcasts, datasets and more.

Roopika Risam has written about "Rethinking Peer Review in the Age of Digital Humanities", and Catherine Cocks, guest writing for The Scholarly Kitchen, responds to the American Association of University Presses’ handbook of Best Practices for Peer Review in her article, “Does Born-Digital Mean Rethinking Peer Review?