Australian Humanities research infrastructure funding

All Australian humanities scholars with an interest in digital scholarship should take this brief opportunity to read and comment on the federal government’s ‘2011 Strategic Roadmap for Australian Research Infrastructure’ discussion paper. Why? Because the two previous ‘Roadmaps’ funded hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of ‘research infrastructure’, almost exclusively NOT in the Humanities, but including hugely expensive science tools like the $100 million Synchrotron. In the previous Roadmap in 2008 there was a section on the Humanities and Social Sciences that included reference to PARADISEC as an exemplary project building infrastructure for Humanities scholars. But not one cent went to support PARADISEC from that process.

There is a pressing need for developing eresearch skills among humanities scholars. While it has long been a part of the everyday practice of those in the physical sciences to use computing tools at a high level, it is only in the recent past that we have seen humanities computing emerge as a recognised area of interest. It is not unreasonable to place the proportion of researchers in the humanities and cultural industries actively engaged in advanced e-humanities research at less than 20 percent, with the remaining 80 percent likely at the bare minimum to have had contact with digital communication practices (email, discussion lists) and search techniques (online library catalogs and databases). Computing skills are much more than word processing — and most humanities scholars do not realise this. There is a lot of scope for computing in the humanities, especially in recognising the structure of the material we work with and how representations of that material should derive from well-formed data, rather than being the primary aim of the researcher. Thus, for example, there is a current need to distinguish multimedia products which are ends in themselves, from those which derive from data which has some longevity. We have learned that handcrafting our output often locks it into proprietary formats that will not be legible in a short period of time. Data needs to be safeguarded for posterity.

In order for these aims to be achieved, we need to establish work practices and appropriate data-sets now. Data-sets are being produced routinely in the course of our research, but usually there is no focus on conforming to standards of data structure, nor to the large problems of managing this data and storing it safely for later reuse. Much of this data is stored in analog form and so is becoming largely unusable due to the obsolescence of the machinery on which it was recorded, or the deterioration of the media itself.

The product of our tax-payer funded research should be reusable and accessible in the future. Data should be held in non-proprietary formats and have good descriptions which conform where possible to international standards (like Dublin Core).

These infrastructure needs can be summarised under three broad headings: advocacy, research/development and data management.

There is a need for advocacy among humanities scholars to promote good practices in working with digital data and to bring to their attention ways of working that will make their work easier, but will also have better outcomes for data sharing or reuse.

There is a need for research into existing and emerging methods and development of tools that could be applied within the local context.

There is a need for data management skills to be developed among humanities scholars. There are a number of projects which have been completed, and for which there are now large datasets that are not being properly maintained. We need good descriptive systems (metadata) and easy to use systems for data entry, as well as longterm data curation for this work.

In practical terms these three aims could be assisted by establishing a national unit with local representation which would:

  • serve as a reference point for scholars engaged in or interested in projects at the intersection of digital technologies and the humanities;
  • provide advice and support
  • anticipate and identify issues for the development of the e-humanities, both conceptual challenges and technical and resource matters;
  • foster digital resource-building ;
  • provide training and skills development in the use of new and existing resources, particularly emphasising the requirements of the next generation of researchers who are currently postgraduates and early career researchers;
  • disseminate information on the latest digital research initiatives being implemented by Australian and overseas institutions;
  • form collaborations and stimulate new kinds of interdisciplinary research.
  • provide targeted training programs,
  • foster exchanges of personnel and expertise amongst projects and disciplines nationally and internationally.

Responses to the Discussion Paper should be sent to Roadmap2011@innovation.gov.au by COB Wednesday, 4 May 2011.

Following analysis of the responses to the Discussion Paper, an Exposure Draft Roadmap will be developed and released for further consultation in June 2011

(Note: I am one of the authors of the current discussion paper, but would be delighted to see an informed debate on its contents and positive suggestions for directions for the policy.)

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