Blog Post

Standards for Digital Scholarship and Digital Dissertations

Yesterday, on the University of Washington's Seattle campus, our local group of HASTAC scholars facilitated a conversation on "Evaluating Digital Scholarship: Expertise, Storage, Design." 

I was glad to see a wide array of folks (from various departments and programs) attend.  Now, a day after the event, it strikes me that the question of where digital scholarship is stored (and how it's stored) especially resonated with the group, as well as the question of what are the standards for digital scholarship. 

And I know "standards" can be off-putting for some; nevertheless, there's a lot to be learned about them from the work of Susan Leigh Star, Geoffrey Bowker, and others in the field of Science and Technology Studies.  Put pithily, standards (e.g., metadata standards) aren't static or inflexible.  Of course, they change over time, and those of us who are engaged in digital scholarship might gain a lot from studying how, exactly, standards emerge and how they affect our respective fields, not to mention our everyday lives (for better or worse). HASTAC Scholars @ the UW

For instance, yesterday, we spent most of our time discussing hypermedia scholarship (e.g., a blend of video, audio, images, and text) and the challenges such publications pose not just to evaluation, but also to archivists.  What's the shelf life or work life of hypermedia?  How will it be accessed in twenty years, where is it being deposited, and according to what guidelines? 

At MLA 2009, I spoke to these issues a touch, looking at my dissertation-in-progress as a working example.  Initially,  I was thinking of adding a digital component to my proto-print dissertation; however, now I am making two versions: one web-based, one print-based (each with different content and designs).  In so doing, I want offer a portable platform for composing digital dissertations (in the humanities), one that abides by archival standards and encoding guidelines and could be used by others, who (like me) are asking what a digital dissertation looks like, how it's designed to perform an argument, and---indeed---where and how it would be stored or deposited (with a library, for instance). 

And sure: that means that, for some folks, the content of the dissertation would be of no interest.  Fair enough.  That's really nothing new. Point being: creating contexts for others to produce scholarship is (or should be) as rewarding as producing more content in a given field.  (Think Omeka here.) 

That said, right now, I'm wondering about a few things, and I'd love to hear what others are thinking along the same lines:

What role, if any, do standards (e.g., metadata standards) play in your field?  Your individual or collaborative work?  And how do they intersect with how you compose/write? 

What does (or might) your critical approach to standards look like?  What is (or would be) its goals?  How does (or would) it simultaneously acknowledge the need for standards, what they historically tend to ignore or elide, and the ways in which systematicity is sutured to sets of contigent practices? 

Doctoral students: What's the form of your dissertation?  Are you considering a digital dissertation or digital components?  Why or why not? 

How do standards involve a template, and to what effects on scholarship?  (Ack!?  Templates!?)

Right now, for a project entitled, "Standards in the Making," I'm collaborating with Matthew Wilson (qualitative GIS, Ball State), James J. Bono (rhetoric and cultural studies, University of Pittsburgh), and Curtis Hisayasu (American Studies, University of Washington) on a digital publication that is unpacking questions like those above.  Since each of us is invested in a different field, we've quickly come to one realization: there are a lot of answers.

Let's welcome them all. 



Thanks for sharing this post, Jentery.  In our project, we've been discussing the ways in which metadata becomes a practice of standardization -- and from that discussion we have imagined 'standards in the making' as more emergent, contingent, situated, etc.  I'd be curious, to add to your excellent questions/prompts above, about other kinds of standards practices: not just documentation, but in design, performance, materials, wellness, etc.  And more specifically, how are moments of collaboration demanding new standards practices in these areas?


There was some discussion of this among students in my department last year, in terms of the five-chapter format/template typically used in the social sciences and how to accommodate other forms of knowledge (indigenous oral traditions, for example, or digital materials, yes). Unfortunately, we didn't get very far in formalizing our concerns and lobbying for any official recognition of alternative formats. I was referred to this site at the time:, or the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations. Perhaps it will be of help somehow as you continue to think about this. For questions about archiving multimodal work, you might ask the folks at Vectors, who seem to have dealt with that for the past few years following their summer institutes:

The question of standards is a much larger one that I'm not sure how to answer concisely. Metadata issues happen to be a research interest of mine, but I definitely see those kinds of standards as having wide-ranging impact for projects involving data collection and relational analysis. I think library/information science has been a field very concerned with definitions ("what is information?") as a kind of standard as well.

It's good to hear that others are also talking about these things. I wonder which office or department on your campus lays claim to primary responsibility for determining digital scholarship standards--sounds like an interdisciplinary undertaking for now, right? I think it's the same here.