Issues in Humanities Data Sharing

I would like to share with you the gist of the presentation I gave to the National Federation of Advanced Information Services 2016 Humanities Roundtable in Atlanta in September 2016.

For this talk, I focused on one of the biggest barriers to humanities data sharing: fear. Fear can take many forms, but the one I wanted to discuss was the fear of not getting credit.

This fear of not getting credit is what framed my talk. First, I explained how this fear has impacted, and in some cases inhibited, my work as a digital humanist. Second, I discussed how I have tried to overcome this fear. Third and finally, I discussed how, as a liaison librarian, I am trying to help faculty and graduate students overcome their own fears of not getting credit for their work.

Fear as a Digital Humanist

First, it is important for me to point out that the fear of not getting credit has prevented me from sharing more information as part of my digital humanities project, Mapping Decadence. Where did this fear originate and why did I become afraid of putting too much information on my website?

The fear was instilled in me at the very beginning of graduate school, years before I started developing my project. Some faculty members made it clear that publishing articles was the most important thing I could do to advance my career. While my digital project was interesting and “trendy”—and thus an asset on the job market—what mattered more were the articles I could base on this project. As such, when I started working on my DH mapping project, I was advised not to put too much information online. Doing so, I was warned, might enable other scholars to steal my work (and thus prevent me from getting my articles in print).

Retrospectively, I should have realized that making my research available online would only enhance my profile and help me on the job market. And so it did.

Just as importantly, sharing my research allows me to fulfill my original goal for Mapping Decadence. The reason I wanted to create a DH project in the first place was to be able to share my work/data with everyone who has internet access. I don’t believe our research should only be only accessible to a happy few.

What are the steps I have taken to try to overcome my fear of not getting credit? (spoiler alert: I still worry about not getting credit)

  • I listened to colleagues and collaborators who told me that my project would be greatly enhanced by sharing more information. These individuals include:
    • Kathy Weimer (Head of Kelley Center for Government Information, Data, and Geospatial Services at Rice University) during a GIS workshop for the international DH conference in Sydney, Australia;
    • Miriam Posner (DH program coordinator at UCLA)’s students who reviewed my project for a class (I found these reviews by chance when googling my website);
    • Paige Morgan, DH librarian at the University of Miami.
  • In each case, my reviewers consistently informed me that I needed to share more data.
    • Some of the information that I was encouraged to share has or will be easy to add to the project. These modifications include noting the sources of my data and adding legends to my maps.
    • Nevertheless, there are others kinds of information my reviewers asked me to share that will pose greater challenges – not least because of my deeply-instilled fears. These include sharing my analyses/results. This kind of modification to the project remains a roadblock, as I am on the TT and I need to publish an analysis of my data in article form for tenure.

Dealing with others’ fears as a liaison librarian

Finally, as a liaison librarian, I have tried to help faculty and graduate students overcome their fear of not getting credit. Let me start by sharing a little anecdote: I met a professor once who explained that s/he only presents papers that have already been accepted for publications because s/he does not want their research stolen. I am sure we all know someone who does this kind of thing. But I have to say, this is so far from the way I see and do things that, as a liaison librarian and a scholar, I have been actively working to help others deal with their fears.

This is why I believe that “education” is the keyword here. The first step I take is talking about the advantages of putting one’s work online (enhancing one’s scholarly profile, earning colleagues’ goodwill, etc.). The second step I take is reminding scholars that there are large and important aspects of their work that they can share without revealing their conclusions or endangering their publications.

What are my strategies to provide education that would help scholars overcome their fears?

  • Educate colleagues about the Institutional Repository (IR@UF where I work for instance). Many people believe that, simply because they’ve published an article on a topic, it is now widely available to others. Introducing colleagues to the IR thus helps acquaint them with larger research accessibility issues while directing them to institutional resources that will help put their work before a wider audience.
  • Provide education through Digital Humanities working groups: help organize talks and invite speakers who have experience in the digital world, promote the events to my patrons and incite them to attend the talks/workshops, etc.
  • Use examples that show colleagues how sharing data can result in positive career outcomes. Rather than seeing data sharing as an invitation to data theft, I want scholars to view data sharing as a way to boost one’s profile, attach one’s name to a project, and advance other scholars’ work in the process. The benefits of sharing thus far outweigh possible risks.

This is not to say these strategies always work. It can be hard to get meetings with faculty to discuss IR/DH/data and it is much easier when this is done on a 1-on-1 basis. But little by little, my hope is that humanities scholars will overcome their fear and see the benefits of data sharing.


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