The Humanities Foresight Study Issue
by Mark Hedges
The PARTHENOS foresight study aims to investigate how research methods, technologies and infrastructures in digital humanities and heritage may develop, and to inform and influence these developments by making recommendations, in particular for strategic R&D thinking within the European Commission. The study is based on task members (Mark Hedges, Vicky Garnett, Roberta Giacomi, Maurizio Sanesi, Sheena Bassett, David Stuart, George Tzedopoulos) engaging with a broad community of interested stakeholders, not just a small number of experts. This issue incorporates a survey that will give you a unique opportunity to make your opinions known and to influence these strategic developments.
In recent years there has been rapid growth both in the development of digital methods and tools and in their application across a wide range of disciplines within the humanities and cultural heritage studies. In parallel to these developments, there have been numerous initiatives and projects at both national and international levels dedicated to the creation of more coordinated research infrastructures at different levels of subject specificity. These projects have been marshalling and integrating tools, services, technologies, policies and human resources in support of advanced research in universities, cultural heritage institutions, and other organisations. The future development of this landscape depends on a complex and dynamic ecosystem of interactions between: changing scholarly priorities, questions and methods; technological advances and new tool development; and the broader social, cultural and economic contexts within which both scholars and infrastructures are situated. A sound knowledge base is required if policy-making bodies are to ‘optimise’ outcomes through implementing appropriate research and innovation policies, setting research priorities, and influencing the progress of research through funding programmes and other interventions.
To this end, the Horizon 2020 project PARTHENOS is carrying out a foresight study, which is investigating how (digital) research methods, technologies and infrastructures in digital humanities and cultural heritage may develop over the next 5-10 years. It is important to understand that foresight research is not simply ‘future gazing’, nor is it about forecasting by experts (although experts may, and indeed should, participate). Rather, it is a way of facilitating structured thinking and debate about long-term issues and developments, and of broadening participation in this process of thinking and debate, to create a shared understanding about possible futures and to enable them to be shaped or influenced.
A key component is the participative aspect. The vision is not that of a small number of experts, but is based on engagement with and involvement of a broad range of key stakeholders, including decision- and policy-makers, but also members of the broader community, including scholars, potential users of research infrastructures, and practitioner stakeholders such as infrastructure providers, data curators, and archivists.
PARTHENOS has organised various information gathering activities to obtain input for its foresight study. Firstly, a series of structured, interactive events in which we curated a multi-polar discussion between representatives from various EU research infrastructure initiatives, and a range of actual or potential stakeholders in those infrastructures, including (but not restricted to) user/researchers. Engaging a representative range of relevant and informed stakeholders in the dialogue extends the breadth and depth of the knowledge base created by the foresight process, by drawing on distributed knowledge (different stakeholders having access to different information), and thus enriches and improves the decisions that will ultimately be made on the basis of our work. These workshops have been supplemented by a series of interviews with academics, researchers, practitioners, and other stakeholders.
We are framing the discussion of ‘foresight’ in the context of this study by asking the following questions, and identifying:
- current trends – what is happening, and what impact is it having?
- potentialities and opportunities – what may happen?
- requirements – what do we want to happen?
- obstacles, constraints, risks and threats – what might prevent this from happening?
- what activities and interventions (e.g. funding programmes, strategic research, service provision) might serve to ‘optimise’ outcomes?
These trends etc. may have aspects relating to technology, to scholarship or professional practice, or to the broader environment (social, cultural, economic, political, etc.), or some combination of the three.
Both the interviews and the workshops were structured around a matrix of 15 questions formed along these two dimensions. The interview transcriptions and workshop notes are being encoded using a collaboratively developed codebook, and the individual encoded items – each of which will be either a trend, a potentiality, a requirement, or an obstacle – are being added to a structured knowledge base within the PARTHENOS VRE.
This Hub Issue provides a summary of the results obtained so far, but its primary purpose is to obtain further input to the foresight study from a much broader community than we could engage with in workshops and interviews. This input can be in the form of comments on the examples provided, but more extensively via the survey that we link to below.
The survey is structured around the same matrix of 15 questions that we have followed in our interviews (see above: How has the Foresight Study gathered data?). Your answers to the survey will be processed in a similar way to the interviews; they will be encoded, and individual encoded items will provide additional input to our knowledge base. The results will be published in the next Hub issue on the Foresight Study, and in the updated report that will be delivered to the EU in October 2019.
The survey is structured around the same matrix of 15 questions that we have followed in our interviews (see above: How has the Foresight Study gathered data?). Your answers to the survey will be processed in a similar way to the interviews; they will be encoded, and individual encoded items will provide additional input to our knowledge base, to the next Hub issue on the Foresight Study, and to the report that will be delivered to the EU.
This research has been approved by the Research Ethics Committee of King’s College London. Your participation will be anonymous, unless you explicitly request otherwise in the survey. Additional information about the research, and about what we will do with the data provided, may be downloaded here.
To sum up, the aim of this study is us not simply to identify trends and to predict future evolution within the sector, but rather to enable the community to inform and influence this evolution by identifying research and funding strategies and interventions that can be taken forward by the various stakeholders active in the (digital) humanities landscape, including universities, research institutions, funding agencies, and research infrastructure providers. The results will feed into strategic R&D thinking within the European Commission, other funding bodies, and research organisations. This survey thus gives you a unique opportunity to make your opinions known, to influence these strategic developments over the coming years, and to maximise the innovative potential of digital research in the humanities.
The following is a very brief summary of the findings that are included in the final report.
The main findings of the foresight study are summarized below, grouped according to identified trends, obstacles, potentialities, and requirements. These are followed by a proposed research agenda.
The adoption of digital research methods is increasingly widespread in the humanities and cultural heritage sector, with the development of new data sources, technologies, and expanding collaborations creating a dynamic and innovative environment.
New data sources include: digitized collections; open data; born-digital content. However: there is still a need for further digitization; concerns have emerged about infringement of IPR and the GDPR; and big technology companies are raising barriers to access to their data.
New tools include: open source software; natural language processing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence tools and libraries. However: there is a difference between placing software on GitHub and ensuring it is sustainable in the long term; and there is a risk that artificial intelligence may be seen as a vague panacea for all difficulties, without fully understanding the potentials, limitations and biases of the tools.
There has been an increase in the number and variety of collaborations: interdisciplinary collaboration; intersectoral collaboration; and international collaboration. However, some humanists are reluctant to embrace digital methodologies, and there is a widespread suspicion of collaborating with the commercial sector, as well as restrictions on international funding.
The lack of sufficient funding for the digital humanities and cultural heritage sectors has significant consequences for the capability of the sector to meet the challenges of the 21stcentury:
- Distortion of research interests.
- Loss of people from the sector.
An additional issue is tje digital divide, which can take many forms, including:
- International digital divide: Differences between the research infrastructures available in different countries.
- Interdisciplinary digital divide: Differences between the research infrastructures that are available to the digital humanities compared with STEM disciplines.
- Intradisciplinary digital divide: A divide within the humanities between those who embrace the potential of digital methodologies and those who do not.
There are also concerns about IPR and the GDPR. The GDPR, in particular, is seen as blocking avenues of research, and preventing humanists researching some of the most important emerging issues affecting the EU, including fake news, populism, and nationalism.
Particular interest was noted in those technologies that offer technological solutions to a lack of growth in the humanities:
- Crowdsourcing: An opportunity to scale up certain types of activity, and engage the public more deeply with humanities research.
- Artificial Intelligence: There are a wide range of potential AI applications in the digital humanities, but humanists must be willing to investigate the black box of these technologies more fully.
New technologies and publication models also offer the potential for greater public impact:
- Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Mobile Applications offer numerous opportunities for promoting research and collections in new ways.
- Open Research may improve research access and quality, and public engagement.
There is a need for growth in the funding of the humanities and cultural heritage sector to ensure that it can meet the challenges of the 21stcentury and our increasingly technology-mediated society.
There is a need for a stronger European lead, with a more explicit European Commission strategy on cultural heritage, and more visiblepublic institutions offering leadership on research infrastructure and standards, and contributing to the building of a European identity.
There is a need for a suitable information regulation framework that supports rather than hinders humanities research; this framework should distinguish between the work of academic or public sector researchers and those from private corporations, and should recognize that the protection required when handling personal health records differs from the protection required when analysing political commentary that is already in the public arena.
Finally there is a need for more projects similar to the PARTHENOS Foresight Study that engage with professionals in culture and heritage to ask them what they see happening and what their needs and issues are.
Five broad themes have emerged that should form the basis of a research agenda in the digital humanities: public engagement; research infrastructures; development of the digital commons; artificial intelligence; and impact and evaluation methods and metrics.
Public engagement is an essential part of ending the underfunding of the humanities and cultural heritage sectors. The contribution of STEM research to society is widely recognised in a way that the contribution of the humanities is not, and there is a need for humanists to make the case for their work more forcibly with a combined voice.
Engagement is not just about promoting research or extracting free labour through crowdsourcing, but engaging with the public to ensure the humanities are meeting the challenges society faces, and demonstrating the contribution humanities research is making to these grand challenges.
The value of recent initiatives in the development of research infrastructures was widely recognized in the study, and more development of research infrastructures for the humanities and cultural heritage sector was seen as necessary.
New or enhanced research infrastructures should not simply perpetuate or exacerbate existing inequalities but help to bridge the digital divide:
- bring to the fore marginalised collections.
- ensure access and analysis is not possible only for the technologically literate.
- provide services and tools as well as data.
Importantly, research infrastructures should be visible and findable, and be used to establish authority in the development of standards and best practice.
Development of the digital commons
The humanities must be more critical in both the application of digital methodologies and the data that is available, it should not be reduced to the application of trendy technologies and data sources looking for research questions, but rather answering the big questions, while at the same time enhancing the digital commons and other digital resources. There is significant work to be done in:
- making new collections freely available online.
- integrating diverse data sets.
- building context and provenance for online resources.
The potential for artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other large-scale computational methodologies is as prevalent in the humanities as in the sciences. It is essential, however, that these technologies are applied critically with attention to sustainability and ethical considerations. There is in particular a need to focus on:
- the ethical implications of the application of AI technologies.
- real world applications that are reusable.
- ensuring the technologies are used to help close rather than extend the digital divide.
Impact and evaluation
Impact and evaluation are important parts of the research process, especially when ensuring that limited funds are used in the best way possible, and there is a need for new methodologies and metrics for impact and evaluation that reflect the specific needs of the humanities and cultural heritage sector. These methodologies and metrics should incentivize innovation, sustainability, and public engagement. They should also recognize a far wider range of outputs and applications, and contribute to the development of standards and best practices in research evaluation.