Audiences, Evidence, and Living Documents: Motivating Factors in Digital Humanities Monograph Publishing

Katrina Fenlon (, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States of America and Megan Senseney (, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States of America and Maria Bonn (, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States of America and Janet Swatscheno (, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States of America and Christopher R. Maden (, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States of America


How humanities scholars communicate their research – with one another, with interdisciplinary communities, and with diverse publics – continues to shift with the emergence of new publishing models. We do not understand enough about why scholars choose to publish in different modalities, or what the implications of their choices are for the use, evaluation, and sustainability of research. Thus, publishing systems and services lag behind the advance of digital methods and modes of communication.

This paper presents selected results of a multimodal study of humanities scholars’ digital publishing needs. Building on national survey of humanities scholars in the United States, initially reported at DH2017 (Senseney et al., 2017), this paper describes preliminary outcomes of a series of interviews with humanities scholars who have a manifest interest in experimental digital publishing. This study seeks to deepen our understanding of scholarly goals for digital publication.

Outcomes of this study are guiding the development of a service model for library-based humanities publishing, as part of the Publishing Without Walls (PWW) project ( Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the University of Illinois Library is leading the PWW initiative in partnership with the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, and the African American Studies Department at the University of Illinois. PWW aims to develop a scalable, shareable model for monograph publishing within libraries, with the goal of bridging gaps in current publishing systems, such as gaps between the complex materials scholars want to publish and what existing systems can accommodate, between scholarly practices and existing publishing tools, and between publishing opportunities at resource-rich and under-resourced institutions.

This paper focuses on humanities scholars’ motivations for publishing digital, open access, and multimedia monographs. We explore three central motivations for digital publishing: (1) the desire to reach diverse audiences; (2) the desire to integrate interactive, multimedia, and linked evidence; and (3) the desire to publish «living» documents. These factors have implications for digital humanities scholars in understanding the impact of different modes of sharing, for libraries seeking to support digital scholarship, for data models underlying enhanced publications, and for publishing service models.


This study comprised a set of semi-structured interviews with humanities scholars. Interview participants were self-selected from among scholars who had already participated in the PWW initiative in some way, whether by attending publishing workshops or submitting to the new series. Nineteen interviews have been conducted to date; more are planned for summer 2018. All interviews are recorded and transcribed, and a formal analysis of resulting transcripts is underway. Participants are all affiliated with academic institutions. They include faculty, postdoctoral research associates, and academic professionals with backgrounds in humanities disciplines, information science, and communications.

Three motivations for enhanced digital publishing

Multiple audiences

Scholars turn to open access (OA) monograph publishing to increase impact by reaching more readers, not only within their disciplines but also cross-disciplinary peers and the general public. Visibility and broad dissemination are established motivations for OA book publishing; evidence suggests that these motivations are rewarded, as OA books receive significantly more usage and citation than non-OA counterparts (Emery et al., 2017). Yet, our study indicates that humanities scholars want more than to reach large audiences. They want to reach diverse audiences, ranging from peers in other disciplines to practitioners, policymakers, and the public. Despite potential impact, participants acknowledged that certain prevalent models of OA monograph publishing suffer from a lack of «institutional weight» and «automatic audiences.» However, participants described leveraging their own social and research networks to promote their work directly.

Interactive, multimedia, and linked evidence

Authors pursue opportunities for representing new kinds of evidence in new contexts. The potential benefits of multimedia publishing are largely unrealized in publishing practice due to the challenges of managing complex digital publications (Jankowski et al., 2012). Scholars want to integrate or actionably link to more kinds of evidence, including multimedia sources, interactive visualizations, data sets, and curated collections. They also want to make their sources interactive, to allow readers opportunities to visualize, explore, and assess bodies of evidence while anchoring them to narrative descriptions and interpretations. One participant described his primary goal for multimedia publishing as making evidence «come alive in a narrative history.»

Living documents

Some humanities scholars want to publish what participants call «living,» evolving documents —works-in-progress that are subject to indefinite change. Participants value immediacy of entrance into ongoing scholarly dialogue, both for obtaining rapid feedback from peers and for flag-planting. Some participants see self-publication as a route toward obtaining high-quality peer review more quickly than through the conventional publication; the complexity of peer review in interdisciplinary settings — like the digital humanities — can lead to dilatory, frustrating review processes, which one participant compared to «the phenomenon of too many cooks in the kitchen,» and which may yield «diluted» end work. The ultimate manifestation of a «living» document is a publication that facilitates ongoing co-authorship, annotation, interlinking, and revision. One participant described an ideal publication as an online document that «people can comment on, that can directly link to its sources and other people can link to it, that has an attached data set of results that other people can make use of and check,» and which is subject to versioning. He described this as an evolving or living document and noted that, «at the moment, most of our research papers are dead documents.»

Future work

While openness is a core value of digital humanities scholarship (albeit with qualifications see, e.g., Spiro, 2012), it is not clear how different modes of publication can most effectively open humanities research: to the stratified audiences identified in this study, to deep interaction with sources, and to ongoing evolution. This paper describes outcomes of our study on what humanities scholars need from the next generation of publishing systems and services, and how this study is guiding development of a new model for library-based publishing that can support and sustain highly diverse and broadly impactful research products.

Appendix A

  1. Emery, C., Lucraft, M., Morka, A., and Pyne, R. (2017).
    The OA effect: How does open access affect the usage of scholarly books? Springer Nature.
  2. Jankowski, N., Scharnhorst, A., Tatum, C., and Tatum, Z. (2012). Enhancing Scholarly Publications: Developing hybrid monographs in the humanities and social sciences.
    Scholarly and Research Communication, 4(1).
  3. Senseney, M. F., Velez, L., Maden, C. R., Swatscheno, J., Bonn, M., Green, H., and Fenlon, K. (2017). Informing library-based digital publishing: A survey of scholars’ needs in a contemporary publishing environment. Presented at the Digital Humanities (DH2017), Montréal, Canada.
  4. Spiro, L. (2012). «This Is Why We Fight»: Defining the values of the digital humanities.
    Debates in the Digital Humanities, 16.

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