Building digital communities in the humanities and social sciences

May 30, 2023
Erika Dilling

by Erika Dilling, Global Health and the Environment Honours Major, 3rd year at York University

“But what I’m stuck on is the behaviour piece. How do we get people to want to learn?” In the inquisitive spirit conversations on university campuses often take, people leave the panel discussion brimming with new questions, new perspectives to old questions, and a renewed excitement for collaboration.  

Panellists Hannah Paveck, Julia Bullard, and Tanja Neimann tackled bridging the gap between community and technology in their “Building Digital Communities in the Humanities and Social Sciences” discussion. The virtual format of Congress in 2022 made it clear that digital spaces reproduce the same issues of equity and inclusion that exist in physical ones. Among these barriers to access, knowledge dissemination emerged as a primary concern. 

It can be easy to think of obstacles around knowledge dissemination as an end-stage problem. Difficulties surrounding knowledge dissemination exist before research even begins. After a daunting march through the publishing process, once a piece is published, it can feel like the heavy lifting is over. The next obstacle is finding an audience. Exploring this, the panellists uncovered an often-overlooked truth: if there is a problem with the output, there is a problem with the input.  

Accessing grants, navigating the ins and outs of publication, and marketing your research can feel like an uphill battle for authors. As Julia Bullard emphasized, infrastructure only becomes visible when it fails us. The temporary removal of the Stanley Park bike lanes illustrated her point. Stumbling in potholes and dodging traffic is a feeling many academics are all too familiar with. With the new federal budget allocating even fewer resources to research than the already strained pool of funding offered, it is time to look at our proverbial bike lanes and admit that it shouldn’t be this hard.

Subjects outside of colonial academic categories (and the academics that research them) experience these problems even more acutely. Persuading funding bodies to resource non-colonial humanities research and subsequently advocating for the accurate categorization and cataloging of said research from centralized publishing firms restrict the availability and visibility of marginalized research. However, cross-stakeholder investment in this area is working to create better avenues in the future.

With the dedicated effort of people like Hannah Paveck, Julia Bullard, and Tanja Neimann, solutions are sought and implemented through thoughtful change. The Scholarly Book Awards program supports open access to scholarly works and creates opportunities for community involvement while avoiding additional costs to authors and publishers. Coalition Republica is building a community-led open-source national infrastructure for digital scholarly publishing. Strategies for meta-tagging and accurately cataloging niche research are being developed and implemented to support marginalized subjects.  

Yes, the bike lanes are broken. No, it should not be this hard. Nevertheless, many individuals and organizations are working to rectify these pitfalls. The interdisciplinary practices showcased at Congress 2023 are an excellent reminder of this.