Collaboration at scale: emerging infrastructures for digital scholarship

Keynote lecture, Japanese Association for Digital Humanities (JADH 2017), Kyoto


Modern technological society is possible only as a result of collaborations constantly taking place between countless individuals and groups working on tasks which at first glance may seem independent from one another yet are ultimately connected through complex interdependencies. Just as technological progress is not merely a story of ever more sophisticated technologies, but also of the evolution of increasingly efficient structures facilitating their development, so too scholarship moves forward not just by the creation of ever more nuanced ideas and theories, but also by increasingly powerful means of identifying, exchanging, and building upon these ideas.

The digital medium presents revolutionary opportunities for facilitating such tasks in humanities scholarship. Most obviously, it offers the ability to perform certain types of analyses on scales larger than would ever have been practical without use of computational methods – for example the examination of trends in word usage across millions of books, or visualizations of social interactions of tens of thousands of historical individuals. But it also presents opportunities for vastly more scalable methods of collaboration between individuals and groups working on distinct yet related projects. Simple examples are readily available: computer scientists develop and publish code through open source platforms, companies further adapt it for use in commercial systems, and humanities scholars to apply it to their own research; libraries digitize and share historical works from their collections, which are transcribed by volunteers, searched and read by researchers and cited in scholarly works.

Much of the infrastructure already in use in digital scholarship is infrastructure developed for more general-purpose use – a natural and desirable development given the obvious economies of scale which result from this. However, as the application of digital methods in humanities scholarship becomes increasingly mainstream, as digitized objects of study more numerous, and related digital techniques more specialized, the value of infrastructure designed specifically to support scholarship in particular fields of study becomes increasingly apparent. This paper will examine types of humanities infrastructure projects which are emerging, and the potential they have to facilitate scalable collaboration within and beyond distributed scholarly communities.

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