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Building a Born-Digital Edited Volume

Writing History in a Digital Age
[This is a guest post by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki. Dougherty is an associate professor of educational studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where his historical research examines schooling and housing in urban and suburban America. Follow him on Twitter @DoughertyJack. Nawrotzki is a lecturer at Heidelberg University of Education, Germany and a Senior Research Fellow at Roehampton University, in London, UK. Her research focuses on childhood, early education, and related social policies in the 19th-21st centuries. Follow her on Twitter @kdnawrotzki.--@jbj]

What would a scholarly edited volume look like if it were created on the web? What if contributors discussed and refined their ideas online, before drafting their full essays? What if papers were openly reviewed on the web by a panel of invited experts and the public? How would this process feel, and would it produce a more intellectually coherent volume than the traditional model? And would an academic press publish it?

We seek to answer these questions as we launch our born-digital edited volume, Writing History in the Digital Age, under contract with the University of Michigan Press for the Digital Humanities Series at its digitalculturebooks imprint. Our book-in-progress examines how new technologies have transformed our work as scholars, and the ways in which we think, teach, author, and publish. Our close attention to how the web affects our craft as writers led us to consider carefully how we would create the book.

Edited volumes represent the best and the worst of scholarly publishing. In the best-case scenario, a successful volume brings together insightful writing on a focused topic, often featuring divergent perspectives from those within or across academic fields. Good editing adds value by building intellectual coherence across contributions by multiple authors, including many whose work would otherwise have been scattered across different journals, or might never have been published at all. But at their worst, edited volumes hold disjointed chapters that bear little relationship to one another, intellectually speaking. Reviewers politely refer to these lesser works as having “uneven quality,” or less politely, as poorly-edited “staple jobs.”

Given that humanities scholars commonly research and write in isolation from one another, we may run a particularly great risk of producing edited volumes that lack coherence. Part of the problem also traces back to our traditional “call for papers” structure in which announcements are circulated, individual contributors submit chapters, and volume editors make cuts, suggest revisions, and strive to package everything as a whole. Under this model, authors usually have no access to other contributors’ ideas during the generative period, nor to others’ draft essays during the revision period, and therefore lack the capacity to build their own connections across the volume.

Recent innovations in digital scholarly communication inspired us to think differently. MediaCommons Press has hosted open reviews of selected works submitted to Shakespeare Quarterly, and we learned a great deal from Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Katherine Rowe‘s account of their experiment. A year ago, Tom Scheinfeldt and Dan Cohen from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media issued a one-week call for Hacking the Academy, which they have edited into a forthcoming volume. Numerous scholars contribute to Wikipedia (and WikiProject Women’s History) or other wiki-style platforms that permit multi-author contributions and editing. All of these models led us to wonder what kind of digital technology and editorial process would be most appropriate for our vision of Writing History in the Digital Age.

When creating our born-digital edited volume, we opted for the easy-to-learn WordPress platform and selected plugins and themes suited for multiple sections of academic text, where readers could add commentary in the margins. Our pilot phase featured the digress.it plugin, and our current site uses a modified version of CommentPress, on servers hosted by Trinity College. We recognize that our platform could be better and we dream of ways to improve it, as described in Jason’s recent ProfHacker post on Collaborative Writing Tools, with updates on this site.

Partnering with a press that supports open-access digital publishing was essential for our project. During our pilot phase, we heard from many junior scholars who embraced the concept of digital scholarship, but worried that publishing on the web might not be rewarded during institutional hiring and promotion. Now that we have an advance contract from the University of Michigan Press, contributors have more motivation to submit their best work. Pending final approval, the Press will publish the volume in two formats: a for-sale print edition and an open-access digital version. In the spirit of greater transparency, we have also uploaded our book proposal and the reviewers’ feedback to our site, as well as our editorial and intellectual property policy regarding our Creative Commons licensing.

Read more at Writing History in the Digital Age. Post your own idea for an essay topic and discuss others by June 30th. Submit a complete draft of your essay and bibliography by August 15th, 2011.

Know of similar efforts to create a born-digital edited volume? Tell us more in the ProfHacker comments section. . . .

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