Enhancement: Issues of Form and Content

I am frequently impressed by the stunning designs of websites maintained by colleagues, research projects, and academic institutions, which strikingly refute the conventional stereotype of monochrome staidness and simplicity associated with scholarly labor. Examples of beautiful scholarly sites abound, but three serve to illustrate such contrast to the stereotype: the site of the department program Digital Cultures and Creativity at the University of Maryland (UM), the research project Visualizing Culture at MIT, and the personal website of Jason Farman at UM.

The pace of transformation of academic labor from the conventional to the dynamic and colorful in a Web environment is exceedingly rapid, and the above dazzling designs highlight a fundamental concern in classical rhetoric: the relation between form and content. In terms of enhanced publications, the question is: What is the place of website design in relation to core principles of enhanced publishing (EP)? More precisely, what is the relation between the content (components) of scholarship and the presentation of that scholarship in a Web environment?

An adequate response to such a question would easily require the length available to standard journal articles, 7000-8000 words, far exceeding limitations generally imposed on a mere blog post. The essence, though, can be composed in a couple of paragraphs…and here they come.

The SURF tender for its enhanced publications program provides a concise description of enhanced publications:

Een Verrijkte Publicatie bestaat uit een publicatie, meestal in de vorm van tekst, verrijkt met extra materialen. Een publicatie kan een artikel in een tijdschrift, een proefschrift, rapport, notitie of een hoofdstuk uit een boek zijn. Voorwaarde is dat het over (wetenschappelijk) onderzoek gaat en een interpretatie of analyse bevat van primaire data of een afgeleide daarvan. Het begeleidende materiaal kan bijvoorbeeld bestaan uit onderzoeksdata, beeldmateriaal ter illustratie, metadatasets en post-publicatie data zoals commentaren en ranking gegevens. Door de veranderende post-publicatie data is het mogelijk dat een Verrijkte Publicatie zich blijft doorontwikkelen in de tijd. (Wat is een Verrijkte Publicatie?)

Basically, for readers unable to decipher this description in Dutch, it suggests that enhanced publications consist of materials related to scientific research made publically available – published – and may consist of a variety of components or ‘objects’: text, data, visualizations, and post-publication commentary provided by authors and, in some cases, by readers. An enhanced publication is dynamic in the sense that it may develop across time.

Three critical components are missing from this description. First, the components of an enhanced publication can interconnected in a manner generating value above and beyond conventionally-prepared print-based publications. Second, these objects can be labeled with ‘persistent identifiers’ (see, e.g., Persistent Identifiers for Cultural Heritage) in such a manner that they are traceable in an ever-changing Web environment. And third, publications with such identifiers (consider them scholarly tattoos) can be deposited in specially-designed depots, repositories, where they can be retrieved (e.g.,Social Science Research Network, SSRN).

None of this is particularly new: there are parallels to virtually all of these points in traditional scholarly publishing. Beginning at the end, the term ‘repository’ is a fancy upgrade for what are called (research) libraries, institutions that have for centuries taken very seriously matters of preserving, coding, and providing access to scholarship. Melvil Dewey’s decimal classification system (DDC) is a classic system of coding documents, as is development of so-called metadata succinctly describing the features and content of the ‘tattooed’ texts.

Enhancement of scholarly publications, in short, is complex and much more involved than the skin-deep beauty apparent on an attractive Web site.  It involves a range of features and most of the current initiatives at developing such publications contain only a few of these features. Few, very few publications in the humanities and social sciences (HSS) make their datasets, be they composed of qualitative or quantitative data, available for further, secondary analysis. Initiatives are being undertaken in this direction as illustrated by the mandate and the projects at Data Archiving and Networked Services (DANS), but the stumbling blocks are far from minor: preparation and suitable metadata, copyright restrictions, protection and privacy of respondents. Samuelle Carlson and Ben Anderson review and compare these challenges for different disciplines in their chapter ‘Naming, Documenting and Contributing to e-Science’, published in e-Research: Transformation in Scholarly Practice (and about to be made available on a website complementing this print-based book). See also their article in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication (JCMC) ‘What are data?

Returning to the classical concern between form and content, should we be concerned with the design of the sites for the four books included in the eHumanities Group Enhanced Publications Project or with the content made available on those sites? The simple answer is: both aspects merit attention and both are important, and both form and content interweave into a unified Web presentation of scholarship. Still, in finding somewhere to start the content and its organization takes initial priority over design. That feature will come but does not constitute the point of departure for these sites. First the content and then the dazzle.