Access, Ownership, Protection: The Ethics of Digital Scholarship

panel / roundtable
  1. 1. Katherine Mary Faull

    Bucknell University

  2. 2. Diane Katherine Jakacki

    Bucknell University

  3. 3. James Christopher O'Sullivan

    Pennsylvania State University

  4. 4. Amy Earhart

    English Dept - Texas A&M University

  5. 5. Micki Kaufman

    History - Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY Graduate Center), Modern Language Association of America

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This panel aims to address the important issue of how we as Digital Humanities scholars negotiate and present the sensitive data (textual, archival, geospatial) that constitutes the core of our analyses. The public facing nature of our work reveals significant challenges that have to do increasingly with access and ethics, and in many cases cause us to reassess how we conduct and disseminate our research. A number of topics pertinent to this issue are addressed in this panel, informed by case studies offered from the panelists’ own work. Points of discussion will include, but not be limited to: the negotiation and presentation of sensitive data, access to sources and resources, collaboration, and ownership. In addition to presenting case studies, this panel will incorporate an open dialogue among attendees that addresses these issues across a broader array of research.

Research Ethics in DH
Many of us who work in the Digital Humanities are in some way negotiating, mediating, remediating, and publishing sensitive data. We use the term “sensitive” in a broad way: sensitivity has to do with data that is physically difficult to access because it is privately held, fragile under restrictive copyright, or regards peoples or places that are affected by its use. While our community is opening up new opportunities to digitize, analyze, and share archival materials, the very publicfacing nature of our work reveals significant challenges that have to do increasingly with access and ethics. In many cases, digital methods and approaches make the data upon which we rely even more sensitive. How do we take into account the possibility of risking damage to an artifact in order to digitize it? How do we negotiate rights to data and metadata that has until now been held privately and closely or that involves dozens if not more authors and artists who are still alive, or whose literary and artistic executors have established different parameters for publication? How do we act responsibly when the very publication of a personal work even one that on the surface seems not to impact upon a group of people or a place because of its historical nature may have a profound impact on the lives of those peoples’ descendants or the sanctity or environmental protection of those places? The pillars of digital scholarship data visualization and markup, large corpus literary analysis, and geospatial analysis are all complicated profoundly by these questions and sometimes deter us as scholars from working with the very materials we rely on to do our research.

Case Studies
This panel’s five contributors work with distinctly different types of data, utilizing a variety of approaches from across the spectrum of digital methods:

Spatial Data
Katie Faull's work with culturalhistorical spatial data in the Susquehanna river watershed has led to a role as mediator between Native American nations and Federal, State and local agencies. Her work regularly raises ethical questions about how data pertaining to sites and landscapes that are carriers of cultural identity and memory for indigenous peoples should be protected from destruction, while at the same time presented to the public as part of important negotiations about conservation. Working with present day Native American nations about the interpretation and conservation of landscapes that are deeply culturally significant, frequently demands delicate negotiations about access and protection and exemplifies the tightrope that many DH researchers must walk. For example, within the realm of Public Humanities, how do we protect indigenous knowledge systems and simultaneously educate the nonindigenous public about those knowledge systems. Her presentation will outline how she and her team of researchers have had to convince archaeologists, for example, that cultural sites can be interpreted within a broader environmental context, thus widening the focus of the cultural historical interpretive lens. At the same time she negotiates with indigenous peoples how to best represent their views of this broader environment. This paper will also discuss how the US Department of the Interior’s new landscape conservation initiative (one that is garnering international recognition) may provide a bridge between access, protection and ownership of indigenous cultural memory.

Historically exploited cultural communities
Amy Earhart’s work in digital critical race studies has led her to develop community collaborations. However, historical abuses of communities present formidable challenges for those who seek to develop partnerships with vulnerable populations. Earhart will address the challenges that those interested in developing equitable partnerships for collaborative projects might encounter, with particular attention to power dynamics between universities/colleges and such communities using her project The Millican “Riot,” 1868 ( ) project as a lens through which to discuss how trust and protection might be built into digital projects and how decisions, from project team to technological platform, impact the equitableness of the partnership. In addition, she will discuss strategies for removing control from the academic and the academic institution and, instead, positioning the project within a community or activist site. Finally, she will discuss the use of creative commons licensing including the TK: Traditional Knowledge License and Labeling license ( ) which ensure that historically exploited communities maintain ownership of their material and intellectual property.

Text Analysis
James O’Sullivan’s work in computational analytics deals with literary datasets that, while not necessarily restricted, are difficult for peers to replicate. Literary datasets are particularly susceptible to computational approaches, and the new insights that such techniques reveal have the potential to add considerable value to our core disciplines. However, in research contexts where the subject matter is as culturally and socially sensitive as it is intriguing, scholars are presented with an ethical dilemma as far as data is concerned. Many of the works used in macroanalyses are often still under copyright, and so researchers are prohibited from sharing the texts. This restriction precludes our peers from doing two important things: validating our findings, and offering further iterations of our work. Considering the effort that is required in digitising certain datasets, our discipline is fast becoming one where much of the work that claims to be empirically valid cannot in fact be validated. Much of our field’s research is conducted on datasets which take the researchers years to acquire and digitize. If datasets are not shared and oftentimes they cannot be replication requires sufficient time and institutional support, and is thus infeasible. As a result, the field has no realistic mechanism by which it can query the validity of methods and interpretations. Should scholars who create datasets hold power over digital artefacts of cultural significance? How can we validate the new insights being offered by scholars in our field? Should we, as scholars, sacrifice access in the name of exploration, or do we need to at least strive for balance between the two?

Intellectual Property
Diane Jakacki’s work as a coordinator of digital humanities projects involves collaborating with researchers whose scholarship often entails significant contributions across disciplines and institutions. In addition, the digital nature of this work necessitates the longterm commitment of institutional resources. As this digital scholarship becomes public, questions about intellectual property rights become increasingly complex. Reflecting the nature of DH as a primarily collaborative mode of intellectual work, traditional models of solitary or individual production no longer work. DH collaboration requires teams of investigators, collaborators, data specialists, and research assistants; it often spans years and involves team members across institutions and international borders. The humanistic tradition honors the primacy of the scholar in terms of intellectual property. But as DH methods and forms of labor transform scholarship models, defining primacy becomes ever more complicated. Who is the scholar? Who owns the artifacts that embody DH scholarship? Who makes those determinations? As DH scholars we (rightly) resist any idea that our work is not our own; but do our institutions understand this the same way?

National Security and Public History
Micki Kaufman’s work involves the text analysis, data visualization and historical interpretation of the National Security Archive's Kissinger Collection, a carefully curated set of meeting memoranda (memcons) and telephone transcripts (telcons) spanning the 9 years of former US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger’s tenure (1968-1977). Her research into the source material and the methods she has employed to obtain and study it, confront and engage complex issues of copyright and public domain, open access and classification, legality and violence. Through a process of creative deformance of text analytics data (collocation frequency, topic models and other abstractions of text), she uses an aesthetic, visual approach to study patterns and surface complex questions of emotional motivation and behavior, intent and suppression. What ethical features apply when one asks questions about a deeply controversial historical subject’s intent and behavior via statistically based text analysis methods, using declassified public domain material from a still classified correspondence, curated by a nonprofit institution and obtained from behind a corporate paywall? From the provenance of the material to the intent of the subject, and from the actions of the declassifying agencies and authorities to the research method, Micki's work examines the ethical underpinnings of the relationship between historian and narrative, setting and subject, word and byte, secret and free.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2016
"Digital Identities: the Past and the Future"

Hosted at Jagiellonian University, Pedagogical University of Krakow

Kraków, Poland

July 11, 2016 - July 16, 2016

454 works by 1072 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (11)

Organizers: ADHO