Book Review and Application

Dougherty, Jack and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds., Writing History in the Digital Age.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2013.

Two concerns often heard about Digital History involve credibility and protection against plagiarism. The first issue is currently being addressed through a peer review system for some online journals, and may expand as more universities create programs in this field.  A solution to the problem of potential plagiarism, on the other hand, might prove more difficult.  First, many of the current generation of  students seem to lack a full understanding of what plagiarism is, particularly when work is appropriated from internet sources.  Second, a key question arises: when is an idea or concept intellectual property, and when is it a common idea if multiple people re-post the same information on the web?

These issues are disconcerting when first venturing into a digital project.  As a professional historian, one wonders about how much work to publish freely (pun intended) on the web.  Even though historians do not generally make a living from their book royalties, at the same time you certainly do not want to show all your cards before the round is over.  Having just this semester personally experienced the frustration of having my own work plagiarized, I can attest to how this is frustrating not only because my hard work was poached, but more importantly, because I have the feeling of being intellectually violated.  I recognize laziness exists in other people who do not have a decent work ethic, but why someone who does not believe in himself/herself enough to work honorably is attempting to get a college degree is inexplicable to me.

To explore possible answers to these problems and others surrounding how the digital world has changed how we do history, I can recommend a place to start.  The book Writing History in the Digital Age is a collection of essays edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, and while they do not solve all troubles of the world, their text explains a great deal about Digital History.  The essays in this text analyze how digital technology has altered the way we interpret history.  The focus on how our methodology has been reshaped by things like crowdsourcing, blogging, spatial analysis, and online collaboration, to name a few areas, leads to the current environment in which traditional historians accustomed to working in isolation and producing long monographs are contending with contemporary historians who collaborate to write short synopses, which frankly are more likely to be read by today’s college students.

This omnibus consists of practically everything a historian needs to know to write successful Digital History: how it affects our methodology, how to teach it as a course, organizing and categorizing data, what to consider for a successful visual and spatial product, how to entice an audience, and finally, collaboration.

I will begin with the final point of collaboration first, because not every historian has skills extending beyond one’s content mastery.  Many historians do not double as computer gurus, nor are they public historians (important for presentation and getting a “look” from viewers); therefore, many successful digital projects are the product of teamwork.  Even in organizing this book, the editors collaborated first with individual writers, then broadly by producing the book in a draft form, online.  This technique of publishing the draft as an interactive text allowed them to gain audience feedback prior to final publication. The purpose of this, according to the editors, was to use technology to create a “more intellectually collaborative volume, with a more transparent process, in a relatively shorter period of time” (Doughtery and Nawrotzki, 2). By utilizing an open peer review process, instead of the standard anonymous private academic peer review, it allowed an audience at all levels of expertise to provide criticism.  In addition, that critique could be narrowed to commentary on a single paragraph, to an entire essay, or even more broadly to the book as a whole. It gave choice to the assessor.  Similar to this concept of open review, the editors reached an extensive audience by using open-source software allowing users to access the book on tablets, phones and various other devices.

There has been some progress regarding the concerns of credibility in online history.  Some academic journals now offer a digital version containing articles that have undergone peer review.  According to the Directory of Open-Access Journals, there are forty such journals just on the subject of History in the Americas, many that are written in Spanish, covering Latin American topics and representing 135 different countries.  All of these are licensed under CC BY-SA (a version of the Creative Commons license). Some of these journals are familiar to those of us working on American History and Women’s History and offer an alternative to the traditional, and often more lengthy, peer review process of a printed journal.

Now, back to the concerns of theft.   To protect the intellectual property of contributors to Writing History in the Digital Age, while providing the content for the world to see, the team established an “editorial and intellectual property policy” that included an agreement to distribute all compositions in this book under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial (BY-NC) license.  This ensured that the authors retained their copyrights and shared their work at the same time.  This, combined with the agreement with the academic publisher, University of Michigan Press, allowed the end product consisting of both an online version and a hard copy book.  The result was a greatly increased audience that could be ensured of both the traditional high standards of academia and a readable text that was written with clarity, not jargon.

Although the authors note that less than 10% of scholars currently publish their intellectual work online, due to the requirements of the tenure process, the traditional habits of professorship, and the threat of someone else stealing original work, the fact is progress is catching up with the historian.  Professional academics need to resolve the current problems complicating the move toward Digital History in order to preserve the integrity of our profession.


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