Digital Scholarship for Keeps:

What Matters                                    

                            and What Lasts?

Elisa Beshero-Bondar
Professor of Digital Humanities, Penn State Erie
(used to be Assoc Prof. of English, Pitt-Greensburg)


Mastodon: | X and Bluesky: @epyllia

MLA 2024 Panel 404: Evaluating Digital Scholarship Today: Problems and Solutions

6 January 2024:

Our students can't / don't want to read and think they never have to write again.

Our administrators don't remember what they learned in humanities courses.

Corporate and political control of our institutions devalues what we care about.

What scholarly work matters now,

in an age of digital wreckage?

AI is changing our thought processes and workflows.

Limited university support for digital project hosting

Traditional “anchors” of evaluation in humanities  

  • "The book is the gold standard."
    • repeated anywhere humanities faculty are assembled
    • publishing to the point of perishing?
      • How expensive?
        • Are new books in your field affordable for university libraries?
        • Does the book require subvention by the author? Supported by your school?
      • Are their presses supported? (university presses facing budget cuts)
        See MLA Statement in support of University Presses (revised 2019)
      • Are they widely available and indexed for wide-ranging access?
    • Does research time on a book cultivate the survival of departments/programs? (Should we care?)
  • Lead or sole authorship matters most
    • How much and how quickly are you learning, working alone?
  • Considering only publication in ranking journals and presses as meritable
    • de-valuing grant work
    • "not counting" development of digital scholarly projects and resources
    • discouraging time spent on anything other than exclusive publications even when it could change the scope of the department and the work the students and faculty can do.  

Background image: Flickr from Bureau of Land Management: New Carissa shipwreck

Niches, arcs, or lifeboats ?

  • How departments die
    • No approval/funds to hire TT or FT
    • No replacement of retiring faculty
    • Hesitant support for faculty initiatives that don't fit the old known ways?
  • Surviving together?
    • Today requires new forms of research! Recognize and value them formally.
    • Research is needed to establish those new forms:
      • grant writing to support new infrastructure: (what's required to output a lab for XR, sound, retro computing?)
      • experimental digital projects to apply a standard method from another field to yours:
        • (e.g. georectifying a massive set of image files representing an unusual 18c map projection model that no one knows much about)
      • professional skill-development by and for faculty: organizing workshops so we learn together
      • new curriculum development         


Background image source: Mission Lifeline Search and Rescue 

Watch what's happening on the edges/fringes

  • Regional comprehensives
  • satellites of the "main" campuses
  • small liberal arts colleges
  • sites of concentrated pressure / rapid change
  • research is sometimes practiced and rewarded differently here
    • easier to interact across disciplines
    • clever strategies to solve resource challenges
    • research motivations often center on student success
    • often strong connections with local communities / schools

See People, Practice, Power: Digital Humanities Outside the Center, eds. Anne B. McGrail, Angel David Nieves, and Siobhan Senier (2022).  

Roopika Risam, “Stewarding Place: Digital Humanities at the Regional Comprehensive University." In People, Practice, Power, Digital Humanities Outside the Center, eds. Anne B. McGrail, Angel David Nieves, and Siobhan Senier (2022).  

[...] we have reframed the limitations of a regional comprehensive university—student profile, unique untapped resources, and emphasis on student success—as affordances for our local approach to digital humanities. We approach design from this perspective, recognizing that there would not be need for digital humanities at the university if not for its value to our students. There is simply not enough time or money available to invest in projects based on faculty research alone, and digital humanities experiences are especially valuable to our students.

                                   —Roopika Risam, about Salem State U.

(De)valuing our scholarship

(digital and otherwise)

Who defines the "impact" of humanities scholarship?

See HumetricsHSS: Humane Metrics Initiative

"Current incentives and rewards create an unsustainable and unstable scholarly ecosystem."

"Making change requires understanding the levers you control within your institution and outside of it; recognizing your own agency and the spaces in which you have influence."

"Values work is iterative, ongoing, and moves at the speed of trust."

Image credit: Lorenzo Petrantoni, in "Research evaluation: Impact." Nature 502, 287 (2013).


  • If we can, critique / reject the metrics, or work on defining altmetrics 
    • Humanities "impact" is never going to look the way it does in the sciences, engineering, and business.
    • And our colleagues and administrators therefore say our fields are just an insignificant "luxury".
  • Define "impact" by
    • Creating new methods and venues for scholarship
    • Creating new opportunities for research that engages students and colleagues
    • Fostering collaboration and new research networks


"Bring out number, weight, & measure in a year of dearth"

                                                    —William Blake, The Proverbs of Hell






"Impact" factors of digital research projects

Open access scholarly publishing

  • An era of "scholarly communication reform" (OSI)
    • Shifting grounds: navigating predatory vs. reputable venues
    • reliability / authenticity vs. pressure to publish too quickly (not just humanities)
    • Where / how should we publish now?
      • Do books / journals provide a means to share and review data for a digital analysis?
      • Can self-hosted work be peer-reviewed?
  • Not simply free to produce and free to access
    • authors and their institutions can be paying
    • libraries may need to pay to access until enough subscribe
    • What is accessible varies widely: can we reach the data?
  • Media and data formats
    • duplicate of print? (PDF)
    • distributed via brittle/vulnerable frameworks (Wordpress?)
    • transferrable document data formats?
      • Markup languages and portable data structures: XML/HTML, CSV/TSV
      • Semantic web: linked data: JSON
    • Data repositories: Humanities Commons and others

Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability, and Reuse of digital assets

What matters now?
Infrastructure work as scholarship effort

Examples/suggestions inspired by the digital and public humanities

  • Minimal computing
    • expanding access to practice of digital scholarship to global south, locations with limited internet and access to computers (Risam/Gil)
    • digital literacy initiatives: Cultivate humanities critique over technological addiction. How do we minimize overconsumption, compute and build with less damage?
  • Digital scholarly editions, databases, archival curation/exploration, and immersive reality projects (and more)
    • involving generations of students with scholars
    • creating publication opportunities on all aspects of development


  • Sustainability action plans help projects survive
    • Evaluate how resources are preserved, maintained, transmitted
    • Try the Socio-Technological Sustainability Roadmap
    • Anticipating changing support infrastructure
      • stability of server resources inside and outside the university
    • Capacity to support permalinks / DOIs when projects migrate
    • Evaluate every 5 or 6 years
  • Plan for digital projects to end

What lasts?

Image source: Pinterest. Inspiration, Blade Runner (1982, director's cut)

Schools, departments, programs, you can:

  • Cultivate awareness and mentorship of digital scholarship
  • Help establish in-house resources: funds, rewards, time to develop
  • Recognize consistently that digital projects are more than service
    • not just for the institution or profession as an extra "pro bono" work
    • especially for the individual scholar as a career building path: recognize scholarly quality of the work
  • Revise local guidelines for promotion / tenure
    • Reconsider what counts as high-priority scholarship now, because institutions are changing
    • Plan to revisit periodically—5-10 years?
    • Keep pulse of the profession:

Support for what lasts?

Resources for further reading


Digital scholarship for keeps: what matters and what lasts?

By Elisa Beshero-Bondar

Digital scholarship for keeps: what matters and what lasts?

We who have attained positions in the humanities in higher education at any level must recognize that the opportunities for success and stability in academic careers have been dwindling rapidly. Perhaps we take a stance of resistance to insist that standards of evaluation for merit and promotion must remain stable in the face of pressures to our institutions, but this does not protect our programs, our university presses, our colleagues from dwindling enrollments and positions. While the safety of our programs is by no means secure, we would do well to support experimental work of collaboration across disciplines and ranks, as well as creative scholarship developing alternative media to the traditional domains of academic publishing—the projects of the digital and public humanities. Too much labor in building digital community, projects, and courses goes unacknowledged in our merit and promotion practices to the point of alienating scholars who should be poised to take our disciplines in new directions. Revising evaluation standards within our institutions everywhere may be critical to preserving humanities programs. Supporting and encouraging digital scholarship may also help us to recognize what matters and what lasts in a time marked by digital innovation and evanescence.

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