Presenting at HASTAC conference, June 26, 2015, East Lansing, Michigan


Tracing the Workflow of a Digital Scholar

This paper presents findings of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded project conducted at Penn State University from April 2012-June 2013. It also outlines preliminary results of Phase II of the same project, currently underway at Penn State and George Mason University.

Phase I explored scholarly workflow of the Penn State faculty across the sciences,humanities, and social sciences, focusing on the integration of digital technologies at all stages of a research life cycle—from collecting and analyzing data, over managing and storing, to writing up and sharing research findings. This paper harvests a comparative multidisciplinary perspective of our study to explore specificities of humanists’ digital workflow, enabling development of a service architecture that supports those practices.

Phase I was comprised of a web-based survey (n=196) and a set of ethnographic interviews (n=23). The results showed that across disciplines digital tools were most actively used for finding, storing, and archiving research materials, although disciplinary differences could be traced. For instance, while the respondents overwhelmingly (92%) store research materials, humanists reported the highest percentage of lost and inaccessible files, predominantly because of failing to migrate materials from obsolete to contemporary formats.

Concerning data collecting and analysis, the use of digital technologies significantly differs across disciplines. Respondents in the science commonly noted that their work would be impossible without digital technologies, and scholars in the social sciences indicated digital tools and methods becoming ‘a new normal’ in their practice. In contrast, humanists implied the lack of digital technology use in those segments of their research process. They nonetheless indicated awareness of digital tools and methods that could facilitate their analytical practice, suggesting the lack of training and time as key impediments to developing needed skills.

Disciplinary differences were also evident in data sharing activities. Two thirds (63%) of scholars in the sciences indicated that they actively share their data; a nearly identical percentage of the humanists (69%) indicated opposite practice. Academic standing also influenced data sharing practices, with tenure-track faculty being more protective of their data than tenured scholars.

Annotating and reflecting emerged as research activities where the use of digital technologies is most idiosyncratic, based on scholars’ personal preferences rather than the level of technical skills or availability of digital tools. The use of citation management programs was higher in the sciences (55 % vs. 30 %), but the overall level of use was lower than in other segments of the workflow.

Phase II of our study is devoted to developing a digital research tool for humanities scholarship using Zotero as a test platform. Based on the results of Phase I, we focus on unifying several segments of the workflow, and facilitating elements such as better integration of archiving into the scholar’s online path. Since the loss of information among the humanists is significant, there is a need to build into the research workflow easy strategies for users to self-archive their work. Optimizations to connect the institutional repository within Zotero, as well as expose references and metadata within uploaded PDFs will be explored.

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