Should I keep this blog? Should I retweet yours? Scholarly responsibility and new publication models

I’ve been engaged with on-line scholarly publication for almost two decades. For a while in the middle of the first decade of this century in fact, my most popular and most often cited publication was a 1998 webpage describing my plans for an electronic edition of the Old English poem Caedmon’s Hymn (The page was originally found at http://home.uleth.ca/~daniel.odonnell/research/caedmon-job.html; after the University of Lethbridge reorganised its directory structure [not cool!] it migrated to http://people.uleth.ca/~daniel.odonnell/research/caedmon-job.html; ultimately, HumanIT asked me to republish the page with them as part of a retrospective to coincide with the publication of the actual edition itself).

Over time, I’ve become more fully invested. I’ve maintained a fully web-based teaching presence since at least 2000. I began blogging about technological, pedagogical, and research matters  regularly since introducing my Textpattern CMS-based university site  in 2006. Although the actual numbers vary depending on how you measure things, this blog is, by any measure, reasonably popular: it logs 300-400 hits a day, of which 60-100 tend to be serious page views.

Despite my relatively heavy practical commitment, my use of the web as a channel of communication until now has been relatively informal and organic. I’ve developed and published resources and tutorials I thought students and others might find useful (and been gratified by the response, e.g. here), I’ve posted reprints of articles and talks I’ve given (especially those intended for open access publications), and, as in the case of the Caedmon article mentioned above, used the site to quite literally log developing ideas I thought I might otherwise lose in my messy and paper-adverse office.

This past spring and summer, I began to think more self-consciously and structurally about my use of the web for scholarly dissemination. Partially this was a result of my work on various research projects that seemed to call for a thought-out social media strategy, particularly the Journal Incubator and the Visionary Cross projects. But partially also because I was impressed by the examples of Aimée Morrison (who made a strong case during a workshop we co-taught at the CSDH-SCHN meeting in Waterloo) and Mel Terras’s blog on research impact and social media.

The approach I took was three-pronged: I began to use twitter much more frequently and self-consciously to announce research initiatives and activities (I went from about 200 posts since I set the account up a year or two ago to 1255 posts as of right now); I set up a self-branded WordPress blog (http://dpod.kakelbont.ca) as a forum for my research-oriented blogging; and I built social media reading and blogging time into my work day.

I’ve been generally pleased with the (early) results of this experiment: as I’ve noted elsewhere, I think a key distinguishing feature of the Digital Humanities as paradiscipline, at least as it is practiced in North America and the U.K., is the extent to which it broadcasts its work-in-progress (Fiormonte has pointed out the dangers of assuming Anglo-American practice is normative in DH, and I am beginning to wonder if this too is an area in which practices diverge). And freeing up reading and blogging time has resulted in a general increase in my scholarly productivity.

At the same time, however, I am having some doubts that all aspects of this experiment are proving equally wise. As much as I love WordPress and its interface (especially compared to the much more old fashioned stock Textpattern interface), I am having mixed feelings about running an off-campus research blog. Some of this has to do with the basic business model: it means maintaining two blogs and abandoning opportunities to capitalise on existing readership and search-engine positioning at my university site. And some of it has to do with implicit claims this suggests about distinctions between my research and teaching.

But a really important prompt to my reconsideration of this idea has to do with Martin Eve’s recent post on the need to improve preservation for alternate forms of scholarly publication at the excellent LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog: what I gain in control, self-branding, and portability with my self-branded site, I lose in institutional continuity and likelihood of long-term preservation. If, as I am convinced (along with many others, of course), alternative channels of scholarly publication are on their way to become a normal part of our research lives, then it is important that we as scholars in the field assume responsibility for ensuring their integrity. Presumably part of this involves ensuring that research- and teaching-focussed websites are eligible for long-term institutional preservation whenever possible, even if this is slightly less convenient than going it alone.

Since this is a developing field, our sense of appropriate work habits is still also in development. Before reading Eve’s post, I had not really considered I might have a responsibility to ensure the long-term preservation of something as informal-seeming as blog postings–admittedly an odd failure on my part, given my interest in institutional repositories and the difficulties I mentioned above that I have already experienced with changing URLs affecting the citation of informal web publication.

There are other areas. An interesting post in the Guardian today by Ernesto Priego looks at the relationship between retweets (when a twitter user forwards a tweet by somebody else on to his or her followers) and resource use (measured by actual site visits through the retweeted URL). His finding: many (perhaps most) people who retweet links do so without actually visiting the link they are passing on.

This may or may not be bad practice. One reason for retweeting a link is to ensure you can find it again yourself–in other words, retweeting can serve as a form of bookmarking. On the other hand, however, retweeting–especially in a scholarly context–can also be understood as a form of bibliographic curation: and as in print scholarship, the value of a reference/retweet seen in this light presumably rises in proportion to the extent the person passing it on has read and evaluated the relevance and quality of the source (I’m grateful also to Matt Schneider for some brief but thought-provoking discussion of this). Some people I follow on Twitter long ago adopted the practice of using MT (instead of RT or “ReTweet”) as an indication that they have modified a tweet they are passing on. Maybe we need to create an indicator that distinguishes between things we haven’t read but look interesting and those we have definitely looked at and are now recommending.

These are two more things to think about as we move forward with the inevitable (and exciting) addition of new channels and audiences for our scholarly communication. I’m still not quite sure what I’m going to do about the problem of maintaining a non-institutionally supported research blog alongside my long-standing (if only quasi-protected) university site: one option I’m considering is reverting to the university site and treating my personal branded site as a mirror, though I’m not quite finished thinking through the bibliographic implications of keeping multiple (and differentially stable) URLs for a single object. And I’ve no idea what to do about the bookmarking vs. curating issue in twitter.

But that’s why DH is so much fun.


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