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CIS Featured in 'Building Expertise to Support Digital Scholarship: A Global Perspective' Report

This report, authored by Vivian Lewis, Lisa Spiro, Xuemao Wang, and Jon E. Cawthorne, sheds light on the expertise required to support a robust and sustainable digital scholarship (DS) program. It focuses first on defining and describing the key domain knowledge, skills, competencies, and mindsets at some of the world’s most prominent digital scholarship programs. It then identifies the main strategies used to build this expertise, both formally and informally. The work is set in a global context, examining leading digital scholarship organizations in China, India, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Germany, Mexico, Canada, and the United States. The report team visited and spoke to us last year, as part of the study. Here are the Executive Summary and link to the final report.
CIS Featured in 'Building Expertise to Support Digital Scholarship: A Global Perspective' Report

Building Expertise to Support Digital Scholarship: A Global Perspective - Cover


Access the 'Building Expertise to Support Digital Scholarship: A Global Perspective' report here.


Executive Summary

As new production, researchers scholarship analysis, pursue using digital or digital publishing scholarship or computational and dissemination (the creation, techniques), of they are often challenged to develop new skill sets. What skills, competencies, knowledge, and mindsets should digital scholars possess? How are such attributes—which we group under the term expertise—best cultivated? Does the shape of expertise vary around the world? Such questions are being asked by institutions establishing or reshaping digital scholarship organizations (DSOs), instructors developing educational and training programs in digital scholarship, experienced and aspiring digital scholars defining what expertise they need to acquire, and researchers exploring the global nature of digital scholarship.

Through our pilot study, we sought to answer these questions with the broader aims of identifying the workforce-related factors important to the success of digital scholarship, helping training and educational programs define key goals, and contributing to the conversation about the global dimensions of digital scholarship. We focused on “best in class” DSOs, highlighting the human dimensions behind their success in areas such as research output, winning grants, international reputation, and innovative teaching or training programs. We conducted interviews with a range of people involved with leading DSOs, including directors, research staff, faculty, librarians, graduate students, and university administrators. We conducted site visits with all but one of the 16 institutions participating in our study, which enabled us to get a richer sense of the facilities, organizational context, and local culture. While most of our interviews focused on digital humanities, we also included several digital social science organizations to identify areas of commonality and contrast. We explored a variety of organizational structures, including research centers and institutes, an academic department, labs, a network, a nonprofit organization, and a company; these organizations were sponsored by academic schools, libraries, and information technology departments. To understand the global dimensions of digital scholarship, we examined organizations from Mexico, China, Taiwan, India, Germany, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Since digital scholarship projects often require specific technical skills (such as expertise in text analysis or geographic information systems [GIS]), it was difficult to generalize about what particular skill sets organizations should offer; in many ways that depends on the goals and focus of the organization. In addition, different skill sets were expected depending on one’s position and degree of experience. However, our interviews revealed in particular the importance of collaborative competencies, reflecting the ways in which digital scholarship typically takes place in teams dependent on diverse expertise. Since digital scholarship often involves developing new methods, tools, and theoretical approaches, successful digital scholars usually exhibit creativity, curiosity, and an enthusiasm for learning, which we term learning mindsets. Some level of general domain knowledge is useful so that team members can understand the research questions they are pursuing, while researchers draw upon methodological competencies (such as data science and GIS) and technical skills (such as database design and programming) to carry out their research. Finally, managerial skills—particularly project management—are needed to ensure that projects are completed.

While self-education and learning by doing are the predominant ways that digital scholars have traditionally acquired expertise, they also appreciate being part of a community of practice, so that they can turn to colleagues for help solving a problem and learning something new. Many organizations host workshops and visiting speakers and enable faculty and staff to attend conferences, although it can be challenging for staff to secure travel funding. A couple of organizations provide dedicated research time to staff, so that they can experiment, stay abreast of the state of the art, and contribute their own research. Along with formal support for professional development, we noted the importance of a “learning culture” in fostering continuous learning. Organizations most successful at building expertise among faculty, students, and staff tended to share characteristics such as an open and collaborative interdisciplinary culture in which each team member contributes expertise and is respected for it; global engagement, which includes participating in multi-institutional research projects; an entrepreneurial culture in which experimentation is valued; and a focus on teaching and learning as well as research. We noted variation in the kind of facilities these organizations occupied; collaborative space seemed to be more important than top-notch hardware.

Since we were able to visit only a small number of organizations in each country or region included in the study, we don’t feel comfortable making broad generalizations about the state of digital scholarship around the world. However, we did note some common factors that influenced the shape of digital scholarship expertise. These factors included a tradition of digital scholarship, as more established organizations could both build on existing structures and could be limited by them; funding; the degree of involvement of the institution’s library; and variations in academic career structures, such as paths to promotion and the recognition of alternative academic careers.

Digital scholarship organizations face a number of challenges, particularly in securing adequate funding for their work. We want to draw particular attention to the challenge of recruitment and retention. Typically, DSOs cannot compete with the private sector in offering high salaries or extensive opportunities for advancement; rather, they provide more flexible environments and an academic or intellectual atmosphere in which staff are encouraged to experiment and learn. Unfortunately, some staff at many organizations are hired on temporary contracts because of limited funding, so they often leave for more stable positions. We also noted a tension between research and service at some organizations, wherein these organizations viewed producing new knowledge as central to their mission but may also be expected to provide services to local researchers or to maintain existing projects. At a few organizations, we observed status differences between faculty and staff, particularly in the ability to be principal investigators on grants or to receive travel funding. Researchers whose first language is not English must often choose between reaching a smaller audience with work published in their native language and devoting significant time to translating their work into English.

We provide an extensive list of recommendations aimed at digital scholars, leaders of DSOs, universities and host organizations, funders, and the broader digital scholarship community. To highlight some of the most salient: We recommend that digital scholars take responsibility for their own learning, nurture their own curiosity, and actively pursue learning opportunities, including by participating in communities of practice and team projects. We advise the leaders of DSOs to encourage both structured and unstructured opportunities for learning by including dedicated staff research time in job descriptions, enabling staff to train and mentor, and hosting workshops, outside speakers, and other events. Host institutions such as universities should create more stable staff positions with paths to promotion and facilitate more stable funding for DSOs, while funders should support global digital scholarship exchanges. As for the digital scholarship community, we recommend heightening awareness of digital scholarship around the world through conference programs, funding initiatives, publications, and communities of practice, and promoting greater linguistic diversity. We hope that this report helps raise awareness of the range of expertise required for digital scholarship, the importance of a learning culture and active communities of practice in nurturing it, the challenges digital scholarship staff often face in finding stable careers, and the diversity of models for digital scholarship around the world.



Puthiya Purayil Sneha

Sneha is a Programme Manager at CIS, and co-leads the researchers@work programme. She is engaged in a mapping of the emergent field of Digital Humanities in India, and is also interested in questions on the nature of textuality, reading, and writing practices in the digital sphere. She can be reached at sneha[at]cis-india[dot]org.