Saturday, 9 May 2015

Genres of scholarly knowledge and production: The Snows of Yesteryear

What follows was my contribution to the panel session on genres of scholarly knowledge and production at the NeDiMAH/AHRC Digital Transformations event, Beyond the Digital Humanities, which took place at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, on May 5th 2015. I talked about a project called The Snows of Yesteryear: Narrating Extreme Weather, which I felt exemplified a lot of issues around the production and uses of scholarly knowledge, and which also typifies what 'Digital Humanities' really looks like these days. 

The Snows of Yesteryear: Narrating Extreme Weather started in 2011 and finished in 2013, and was a very small project in terms of funding and activities (we had a total of around £100k from the Landscape and Environment programme of the AHRC, which due to re-election purdah I referred to as the Research Council that Dare Not Speak Its Name). The project was collaboration between humanities research, the archives of the National Library of Wales, and the ACRE Project at the Met Office, which seeks to reconstruct and visualize historic weather for analysis and visualization of climate change over time.

Focusing on Wales, we worked with archives from the pre-weather instrument period (approx. pre 1800) to find instances of extreme weather events and people’s response to them: in letters, diaries, ballads, manuscripts, exploring digital capture of archives to uncover narratives of extreme weather. We then took an ethnographic approach: we conducted interview with people to develop narratives of impact of extreme weather: then worked with archival resources and interview data to come up with a paradigm for making sense of all this stuff for research into climate, identifying narrative markers (a vocabulary) for extreme weather events.

So the project really focused on data, and its re-use, and new types of collaboration, through a dialogue between the sciences and the arts and humanities. As a means of demonstrating this, the material was the inspiration for a public performance piece, Ghost Dance, created by artist Eddie Ladd, which drew on disparate narratives as a piece describing events of the winter of 1963 in an allegorical, not didactic way.

Our aims in developing the performance were:
  • to inform, enhance and stimulate public awareness, understanding and appreciation through accounts and representations of extreme weather events; and how responses to such historical occurrences might inform contemporary experiences, strengthening local and regional regard for adaptability and resilience;
  • methodologically, to devise modes of performance appropriate for the dramaturgical assemblage of diverse materials – including scientific data – and for their public exposition in live situations;
  • to develop procedures to help illuminate, explicate and problematise the multiplicity of meanings that resonate within extreme climatic experiences;
  • to evoke past events and the immediate responses to them: of both trauma and resilience; bridging a linguistic as well as a historical and cultural gap between texts and modern audiences.
So, this is a pretty good exemplar of DH in practice: working with humanities research questions to uncover data that’s then reused by scientists and performers. This sort of co-curation and re-use is often the goal of DH projects.

But: think about these outputs (climate visualisations, and performance), and think about the publication and sustainability issues they raise. We are creating research, and research outputs, that go beyond the traditional publication model.

As a researcher working with data, working on the project highlighted for me some of the issues associated with this emerging digital research life cycle:
  • Data is being created in silos: the sustainability mechanisms we use, like institutional repositories, mitigate against sharing.
  • Trans-national, and trans disciplinary collaboration are needed for this sort of work, but how do we sustain this sort of engagement over time?  
  • Collaboration with archives and libraries is key to much of this work: but how can we engage them critically in exposing data for re-use that is currently unforeseen? 
  • How do you share and document this sort of research, and it's outputs? How do you publish this? How can we reconcile this sort of work with traditional, peer reward publication models?
  • How do you reflect the provenance of data embedded in a visualization, or a performance? When our publishing models focus on end results, how should we communicate complexity, ambiguity, and interpretation, in work that’s open for re-purposing? How do you represent the analysis inherent in the data?
  • And how does this fit into traditional reward cultures? How do we assess work in disciplines that are not our own? 
What was clear from the Snows of Yesteryear was that the impact of the data we create, and the critical engagement with that data, will be greater if we can share this material effectively across networks, disciplines and communities, which can also in turn share this work and its outputs.  We’ve become very good at managing data: the data for Snows won’t go anywhere: but we still haven’t given enough thought to its re-use and publishing.  Our work is beautifully digitally curated, but it's still locked in silos: How to embed outputs into other communities, research?

But individual researchers and projects – especially short term projects - won't be able to change modes of scholarly production: we need networks and collaboration, such as those effected by transnational infrastructures like DARIAH and CLARIN, which are starting to discuss the human and collaborative aspects of Research Infrastructure. Sharing data within humanities research is difficult, as humanities researchers are not yet completely open to sharing. Yet visibility is a full part of the scientific process: we need more visibility for digitally based research and for the products of this research.

The crux of these challenges is that there is a huge potential impact of DH. But current structures and scholarly communication modes mean that often, transformative work is not visible.

When projects like the Snows of Yesteryear are building resources that address social, cultural, economical, ecological and political issues, these are significant challenges we must start to address: Our ideas could be lost or ignored if we do get better at creating shared laboratories or sandpits, and methods for sharing data for use and re-use: it’s a contradiction but still the case that digital research and sources are often less visible than analogue outputs.

A cultural shift is needed. One way to start on that path is to be more reflective about existing DH outputs, and integrate this into the way that we think about creating scholarly knowledge, and collaborate to effect cultural change around sharing and using data.