Reshaping the Writing of History in the Digital Age

Collection of 30 Essays experiments with Open Peer Review

HARTFORD, CT, October 25, 2011 – In their new web-book, Writing History in the Digital Age, Professor Jack Dougherty and Co-editor Kristen Nawrotzki will demonstrate how academics can replace what has been a costly, secretive and lengthy publishing process with open-access online scholarship.

Dougherty, associate professor of educational studies at Trinity College, and Nawrotzki, a lecturer at the University of Education in Heidelberg, Germany and Senior Research Fellow at Roehampton University, are under contract for the book with the University of Michigan Press, a leader in digital publishing and open-access scholarship. It’s anticipated that the collection of essays will be published in the University of Michigan Press Digital Humanities Series edited by Julie Thompson Klein and Tara McPherson, under MPublishing’s imprint. 

Together, Dougherty and Nawrotzki and the University of Michigan Press are stretching the bounds of the traditional model of blind peer review, inviting both experts and general readers to review the collection in public.

digitalculturebooks, a 5-year-old partnership between the University of Michigan Library and the University of Michigan Press, serves as an incubator for developing and testing ideas about new publishing models, particularly focusing on advancing the understanding of the relationship between humanities and digital technologies.

“The University of Michigan Press and the University of Michigan Library are deeply committed to the widest possible availability of scholarship. This book [Writing History in the Digital Age] is a great example,” said Tom Dwyer, editor in chief of the University of Michigan Press.

In the 30-essay web-book, Writing History in the Digital Age, historians will discuss, debate, and demonstrate how their writing has been reshaped by a range of electronic tools and techniques, including crowd-sourcing, relational databases, text encoding, spatial analysis, visual media, gaming simulations, and online collaborations.

In their call for comments, Dougherty and Nawrotzki have asked for feedback from the public and three expert reviewers appointed by the University of Michigan Press. The only requirement is that each reviewer disclose his or her full name. In just the first week of open peer review, 1,200 unique visitors were attracted to the Writing History in the Digital Age site, posting 140 comments. The closing date for comments is November 14.

Pending the final selection of essays, revisions by the authors and approval by the University of Michigan Press Executive Board, the volume is expected to be published in print and freely accessible digital versions. 

More information about the web-book and the process can be seen at:

“Our book began as a conversation among historians around one of our core work processes: the act of writing,” said Dougherty. “The fact that this volume about writing has been digitally conceived, developed, and published is anything but coincidental. We see this volume and the essays in it as an intervention into a complex and changing landscape of digital scholarship and scholarly publishing.”

Out of that conversation grew many of the questions explored in Writing History in the Digital Age, such as: Has the digital revolution transformed how academics write about the past or not? Have new technologies changed the essential work of scholars and the ways in which they think, teach, write, and publish? Does the digital age have broader implications for individual writing processes or for the historical profession at large?

The three major elements that distinguish this endeavor from conventional books are:

  • The edited volume is “born digital,” meaning that the co-editors have integrated web technology into the fundamental processes of writing, revising, and publishing the work.
  • Dougherty and Nawrotzki created an open peer review book to encourage commentary from the public during a six-week period, from October 6 to November 14. Anyone may respond to the text at three levels: comments on the book as a whole, on an individual essay, or on a specific paragraph.

“The objective,” said Nawrotzki, “is to encourage all readers – both invited experts and general audiences, senior scholars and novice students – to openly participate in the process of peer review and make our individual judgments about what ‘good writing’ means in the history profession more visible to all.”

  • Lastly, the digital volume is open-access or freely shared with readers on the public web. No subscription fees, passwords, or proprietary e-reader devices are required to view or comment on the scholarship.

Nawrotzki said the idea for the book evolved in 2010, when she and Dougherty began to focus on “pulling back the curtain on a secretive process.”

Dougherty said the goal is not to simply make the process more transparent, but to see if the end result is “a more coherent product.”

The co-editors and authors have collaborated on getting the word out in a variety of ways, including email, Twitter, word of mouth, blogs and scholarly networks.

Once all of the comments have been received, the 115,000 words that now constitute the essays will be trimmed to 90,000 and the manuscript will be submitted on March 1.

In sum, said Dougherty, Writing History in the Digital Age “is at attempt to build on the past and forge our way into the future.”

“At a time in which traditional models of scholarly communication appear increasingly limiting, we hope Writing History in the Digital Age will inspire others to join in breaking down these intellectual and professional barriers, all in the service of excellent scholarship.”