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AHA Council Approves Guidelines for Evaluation of Digital Projects

Seth Denbo, September 2015

Mathematician Ada, Countess of Lovelace gets credit for pioneering computer programming with her work on the Babbage Analytical Engine.Credit: Margaret Sarah Carpenter, (Augusta) Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, 1836. British Government Art Collection.At its June meeting, the AHA Council approved the "Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians." The approval of the guidelines was the culmination of the work of the ad hoc committee appointed in early 2014 by then-president Ken Pomeranz. The committee was charged with developing a set of guidelines that departments could use to evaluate the work of scholars using digital media for research, publication, and teaching.

With greater numbers of historians making contributions to scholarship through digital means, the discipline must grow to encompass the variety of formats and media available in the rapidly evolving digital environment. We can only do so by giving proper credit for work on digital projects that contribute to historical knowledge.

The guidelines make a strong statement that departments must evaluate such work on its scholarly merits: Work done by historians using digital methodologies or media for research, pedagogy, or communication should be evaluated for hiring, promotion, and tenure on its scholarly merit and the contribution that work makes to the discipline through research, teaching, or service. While the medium of scholarly communication is important, when there are good reasons for presenting historical scholarship in new formats or media, scholars should be encouraged to do so.

The committee concluded that the best way to support this effort is to focus on the contribution scholars and their work make to the documented and disciplined conversation about matters of enduring consequence. Professional decisions (hiring, tenure, promotion) are made on the basis of a promise or demonstration of a scholars ability to further historical knowledge in his or her field. This contribution is evaluated in different ways that depend upon the institutional context; what will count varies according to the type of organization and the priorities of the department. In order for the guidelines to be as broadly applicable as possible, they encourage departments to define the contributions for their own circumstances.

The AHA developed these guidelines through an open, iterative process, sharing drafts with groups of department chairs and the entire community of historians at several stages in the process. This approach led to such improvements as the addition of a recommendation to departments that they look at work on grant proposals as a form of peer review when reviewing projects and contributors.

"Work done by historians using digital methodologies or media for research, pedagogy, or communication should be evaluated on its scholarly merit and the contribution it makes to the discipline through research, teaching, or service."

By producing and ratifying this document, the AHA aims to help departments and scholars negotiate the complex process of evaluating scholarly contributions. The guidelines themselves define a social contract between the individual and the department, with the AHA committed to providing support for this process in a number of ways. Both the scholar producing digital work and the department looking to hire or promote that scholar have responsibilities. Departments face problems in a number of areas, including appraising collaborative work, specifying what will count toward promotion and tenure, and the possibility of a lack of expertise within the department. Individual scholars, for their part, need to be as explicit as possible about the advantages of utilizing digital methodologies.

Following the recommendation of the committee, the AHA is supporting this process by establishing a digital history working group that will be available to advise departments considering these issues, help them define their own guidelines, and recommend external reviewers. The AHA will also develop materials to provide further guidance for departments, such as, according to the guidelines, a curated gallery of ongoing digital scholarship so that historians can learn directly from one another as they conceive, build, and interpret new forms of scholarship.

Just as methodological turns in the past few decades enriched our discipline and gave us new analytical tools for understanding how human society has changed, digital methods can illuminate new facets of history and enhance the impact of our work. Ultimately, as the guidelines state, “the goal of the Association and of the committee is to align our best traditions with our best opportunities.” These guidelines and the digital history working group are an important step toward fostering that alignment in our discipline.

The guidelines can be found on the AHA's website at historians.org/dh-eval.

Seth Denbo is director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at the AHA. He Tweets @seth_denbo.

Digital History Working Group

David Bell, cochair, ex officio (Princeton Univ.)

Jeff McClurken, cochair (Univ. of Mary Washington)

Kalani Craig (Indiana Univ.)

Paula Findlen (Stanford Univ.)

Walter Hawthorne (Michigan State Univ.)

Jason Kelly (Indiana Univ.–Purdue Univ. Indianapolis)

Andrew H. Lee (New York Univ.)

Michelle Moravec (Rosemont Coll.)

Stephen Robertson (George Mason Univ.)


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