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Story: Paul Wouters 262 english  dutch

Digital humanities surprisingly diverse

9 May 2008 -

e-Science is not a uniform revolution, but displays rather a surprising diversity, in particular in the humanities. Standardized academic systems find it difficult to support this diversity, according to Paul Wouters, professor in Knowledge Dynamics at the Erasmus University and programme leader of the Virtual Knowledge Studio.

Researchers and scholars increasingly use advanced information and communication technologies (ICT). The development of e-science in the natural and life sciences ususally draws most attention. Main topics in these areas are the generation, processing, analysis and visualization of exponentially growing data. Research teams are also keen on virtual collaboration around these data sets. The emergence of novel sensor and imaging technologies has accelerated this development.
Data are also central in the social sciences. Here, the issue is not in the first place the growth in data but an increase in the variety of data sources and the use of government data for social research. A new area is moreover the use of Web and internet data, such as in the field of Webometrics. The peculiar combination of persistence and ephemerality of the Web has created new data puzzles. Data archiving and the possibilities for secondary analysis are also a priority in the social sciences (as documented in the KNAW report Networked Data Services - Towards a Future Data Infrastructure for the Social Sciences in the Netherlands from 2003).
Digital humanities may attract less attention, but are perhaps the most interesting area for applications of ICT and new information systems. The humanities are a very diverse set of fields because virtually all scientific styles are represented, from hypothesis driven experimental work to interpretative historical analysis. Many humanities are practiced by solitary researchers, but we also see huge interdisciplinary teams. Scholars are increasingly publishing teamwork in English, but Dutch will remain an important language of scholarship, at least in the foreseeable future.
ICT based innovation in the humanities therefore confirms that e-science is not a uniform revolution. Interesting applications are not always of the computational type. The use of computers as pattern recognition engines to support analysis of texts, images and sounds is often more interesting. The Web can be used to make co-authored annotations available to colleagues in a timely and accessible fashion. It is still an open question whether or not this will speed up the process of knowledge discovery and creation. After all, interpretation wil remain a slow process. As long as critical reflection is a core task for the humanities, the writing of books will require time and patience.
An interesting development is the use of networked computers as complexity engines to support the use of simulations in the humanities, for example in archaeology and history. The process of building up collaboratories in the humanities has only just begun and the lessons from the many failed prototypes in the natural sciences can be very helpful here. Still, the humanities will need to further develop their own culture of collaboration, in which solitary work will remain an important element.
The implications of all this is that the use of ICT will diversify even more. This is contrary to the way universities have standardized their ICT services with the aim of professionalization or for budgettary reasons. For example, installing even a simple Firefox plug-in on their own computer is something beyond the reach of most academics. Apparently, information technology implementation can lead to more bureaucratic barriers, slowing down the process of knowledge creation rather than supporting it.
The widespread use of the Web 2.0, social networking sites and blogs, has created new possibilities for publishing scientific results and projects, in particular for the younger generations. However, being creative in this area is not yet supported by the career policies of most faculties in the Netherlands. The emphasis is on international peer reviewed, ISI-journals, preferably with a high impact factor. The latter may be useful in some fields, whereas it is nonsense in other fields. The Dutch Standard Evaluation Protocol gives, as such, more than enough space for novel indicators of quality and relevance. However, most faculty directors still have to discover ways to implement these possibilities.


On 22 April 2008, the Advisory Council for Science and Technology Policy organized a workshop eScience in Action. Central question of the workshop was which influence ICT has on science and scholarship. This story is a shortened version of the presentation Paul Wouters gave at this workshop.

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