The secrets of successful digital publishing in the arts and humanities
10 October 2006
Dr Claire Warwick and Dr Melissa Terras (UCL SLAIS) have completed the first large-scale systematic investigation into arts and humanities-focused digital resources in the UK - with some profound lessons for all researchers.
The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has funded over 250 UK digital humanities projects since 1998, but the LAIRAH project - a Log Analysis of Digital Resources in the Arts and Humanities - represents the first study of what happens to these databases and archives once they have been posted on the internet.
The questionnaires, workshops and interviews carried out over the past year will inform the future information and communications strategy of the AHRC. The 'deep log analysis' of portal sites interrogated data held by internet servers to reveal exactly who has been accessing which resources, for how long, and how often.
The findings suggest that around a third of digital resources, once uploaded, are not used, though more extensive research would be needed to arrive at a definitive figure. This is comparable to the number of scientific articles that are not cited by other researchers. However, the creation of these resources can often consume £250,000 upwards of funding and several years of the lives of the researchers involved.
'Exciting' topics such as warfare and witchcraft attract visitors, but resources used by a small community can draw users by using intuitive titles rather than specialist terminology. Once on the site, both specialist users and non-experts value simple interfaces which describe the scope of the information contained much more than complex functionality. Enabling non-academics to access information can lead to unexpected uses: a resource designed for eighteenth century historians has been cited in the Supreme Court of the United States.
The research confirmed that researchers rarely carry out formal user testing before designing resources. Gratifyingly, the projects which had been tested by potential users were found to be amongst the most well used. Unsurprisingly, academics who invested time and effort in publicising their resource were also rewarded with high visitor rates. It may sound straightforward, but the publicity imperative is new to many researchers, since in conventional book publishing, it is the publishing house that takes on the role of marketing a new title.
Sustainability emerged as a tougher issue. The academic structure of project funding is not well suited to maintaining projects on an ongoing basis. Several projects investigated were able to fund full-time posts during the creation of the resource, but no money was available to maintain them once it had been published.
At the root of such scenarios is often a lack of recognition for digital publishing amongst academics, and indeed by the government. Despite their reach and their interactive benefits, digital resources are not formally recognised by the Research Assessment Exercise, which the government uses to rank all the university departments in the UK according to their research output. However, this system is under review, and Dr Warwick knows of at least one pioneering researcher who has submitted a digital project for assessment.
"It may sound daunting but we have put together a very straightforward checklist for any academics considering a digital publishing project. We would also be delighted to hear from anyone who would like advice or to collaborate on a project," says Dr Warwick.