What is digital scholarship?

I’ve been wondering about the phrase “digital scholarship” recently and what it might mean. I think we have to start by asking why is “digital scholarship” different from “scholarship”? (If it isn’t different, why are we worrying about it?). For me, scholarship is the attempt to conceptualise and theorise about the real world. That’s not quite the same as “learning”, although that is an important subdivision. My definition presents a problem though, since, as far as science has been able to discover, the only place conceptualisation and theorisation can occur is inside the human mind.  So what then is “digital scholarship?” These are very much preliminary thoughts but three elements leap out at me, namely metadata, critique, and accessibility.


Scholarship has always been dependent on inputs and outputs, whether oral stories, printed or written texts, plays, experiences or, video productions.  It is these that computers are excellent at managing, and I think that is where the notion of “digital scholarship” has arisen – but that’s not quite the same as my definition of scholarship. Yes, computers offer tools that scholars can use to work together to combine their work, but a blog entry, a wiki page, or even a tweet is still a snapshot of the state of a human mind at a given point, and that mind is, even as it is writing, simultaneously considering, accepting, rejecting or developing concepts.


So what is it that makes “digital scholarship” scholarship? (We can all agree that computers make scholarship “digital”, so I’m going to take their role as read in this post, although there’s clearly a lot of innovative work that can be done with them, and there might well be a scholarship emerging in this area.) In then end, I think it comes down to the outputs and inputs (although any artefact, digital or not, can be both input and output depending on how it is used). But an important quality of these artefacts is that they are inanimate. That means that they can only be accessed through metadata. Yes, they can be changed, but unlike a mental concept they are not changed by immediate experience, nor can they question themselves. That means digital scholarship must concern itself with this, since digital artefacts are less visible. The sort of intellectual serendipity you get from wandering around a library is hard to replicate in a digital environment. There are some metadata tools (e.g. RSS, and some of the work going on around games, virtual worlds and simulators) that are qualitatively different from analogue tools and can alert users to relevant concepts, but they’re still reliant on an accurate description of the data in the object itself, which leads into the second of my three aspects, critique


There is a second quality about digital artefacts, and one that is easy to miss. Much as we like to convince ourselves that they, especially “open” ones, are free, they are, and will always remain commodities and as such still subject to the exchange relations inherent in a capitalist society. No-one would seriously dispute that a book has an exchange value, however small.. Digital artefacts too are the product of human labour and thus contain an element of the surplus value that that creates, albeit arguably much smaller .While money might not be being exchanged for that value, that doesn’t negate the argument. The things being exchanged are among other things, the author’s reputation, further labour potential to improve the product and of course a small element of the labour inherent in the production of the hardware, software and server time necessary to use the artefact. Essentially an open digital artefact is an unfinished product. Which means the second area of concern for digital scholarship is critique. Critique has always been an essential aspect of scholarship, but the absence of peer review in digital production makes it much more important.


Finally, there is the question of accessibility. By “accessibility” I mean the ways in which users use a technology. Clearly, there are some physical, social and economic barriers to using a technology, and any serious scholarship has to concern itself with the potential for exclusion that those barriers present. But digital technologies also offer multiple ways of doing things and human beings, being what they are inevitably find ways of using new tools to do things in unexpected ways, ways which may appear “wrong” to the original provider. (It is, of course true that sometimes these ways of doing things are actually wrong – in which case the user has to either seek assistance or give up) Since learning often involves making mistakes, I’m not comfortable with phrases like “digital literacy” if that means “doing things in the way we, as content producers, think they should be done”. So I’d argue that digital scholarship has to concern itself with the issue of accessibility in its broadest sense, much as traditional scholarship has concerned itself with issues of publication.


So, for me digital scholarship shares many values and ideas with traditional scholarship but places a greater emphasis on how ideas are described and accessed, and needs to be even more sceptical of the validity of expressed ideas, and much more involved with how people use technology. The next question to ask is what that would look like in practice. But that’s for another day.