Digital Humanities Publishing

I have a long-standing interest in electronic digital publishing. In fact, my first job after getting my master’s degree was with a large scientific publisher, so besides having the experience of an author and editor, I also know a thing or two about the role of scientific publishers. It is from this time that I still have a rubber stamp saying “SGML,” which I keep because it says a lot about scholarly publishing.

Anyway, when you are working in computer science or computational linguistics, publishing is a pretty streamlined process: you write your paper in LaTeX, using a provided style file, which takes care of all the formatting. Naturally, you use BibTeX for references, which means that they are also automatically formatted according to the specification, and that the bibliography is always up to date. And then you simply upload the generated PDF. You rarely need to deal with publishers, and even when you do, e.g., when you’re publishing in, say, LNCS or CCIS, the experience is still generally pretty agreeable (in the case of LNCS and CCIS, the main difference is essentially that you also submit your LaTeX source for the final version).

And even if your paper is rejected, you just change the document class, et voilà, your paper is ready for submission to another venue (I am simplifying a bit, but not very much.)

Of course, things could always be improved. For example, it is hard to extract information from PDF files because they no longer contain any of the semantic information that was in the LaTeX document, but as LaTeX is not ideal either in this respect, because it is actually a full, Turing-complete programming language, and so on. I have repeatedly brought up the topic of the “future of scientific publishing” at DocEng (the ACM Symposium on Document Engineering):

The familiar PDF-based scholarly publishing workflow—which emulates
even earlier paper-based workflows—has been surprisingly resistent to
change. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that it no longer
meets the requirements of a quickly evolving scholarly, technical, and
political environment, which includes the trend towards open access
publishing, reproducible research, mobile devices, linked open data,
and many other developments. This workshop approaches scholarly
publishing from a document engineering perspective and focuses on the
question of document formats for submission, review, publication, and
archival of scholarly publications. We will discuss the current state
of scholarly publishing from a document engineering point of view,
with the explicit goal of identifying potential alternatives to the
current workflow. [Piotrowski 2016]

Now, these days my “actual” research is in “digital humanities,” and things are… different there. Here are four examples across which I came recently and which illustrate just how different:

  1. The Digital Humanities conferences, but also DHd, the annual conference of the German-language DH association, use a simple TEI subset for submissions. Great! But! You cannot just write an XML document and submit it. You are forced to use a contraption called DHConvalidator (I like to call it DHConfabulator), which generates the TEI from a Word or OpenOffice document, and you must submit the word processor file alongside the generated XML—no Word, no submission! Reviewers receive a ZIP file with a file name ending not in .zip but in .dhc, which contains the TEI and an HTML file generated from the TEI. In the end, however, the book of abstracts is a big PDF file that does not even contain hyperlinks.

    Fabian Cremer sums it up quite nicely in his post Nun sag, wie hältst Du es mit dem Digitalen Publizieren, Digital Humanities?:

    Das bedeutet man extrahiert aus grafisch gesetzten Texten mühevoll die semantischen Informationen um danach wieder jedwede Struktur auszuradieren. Das markiert dann das andere Ende der Kunst des digitalen Publizierens.

    (“So effectively one painstakingly extracts the semantic information from graphically typeset texts [the Word documents] in order to eventually erase all structure whatsoever. This marks the other end of the spectrum of the art of digital publishing.”)

    The absurdity of this process is mind-boggling, and it absolutely no added value of any kind: neither for authors, nor for reviewers, nor for publishing, nor for readers. My only explanation is that it is, in fact, a purely symbolic exercise, a tribal ritual, if you want, to demonstrate the “digitality” of the “digital humanities.” As I have pointed out in an earlier post (The Digital Age, in German), “digital” here is merely a synonym for “modern.”

  2. The Zeitschrift für digitale Geisteswissenschaften uses a similar process: the master format is TEI (which you can even download for published articles!), but for submissions it says:

    Bitte reichen Sie Ihren Text als Text-Dokument ein. Mögliche Datei-Formate sind *.doc / *.docx, *.rtf oder *.odt.

    (“Please submit your text as text [sic!] document. Possible file formats are *.doc / *.docx, *.rtf or *.odt.”) This is accompanied by extensive formatting instructions.

  3. Umanistica digitale, the journal of the Italian DH association, may look like a pleasant surprise: wow, it is published in RASH, one of the most refined propositions for replacing PDF for the publishing of scholarly articles. But wait!

    We ask that you submit your paper either in OpenOffice .odt or Word .docx according to the template provided by RASH – a framework for converting scientific papers into PDF/HTML+RDF.

  4. The Journal of European Periodical Studies is not a digital humanities journal, but it is an online journal, too. The published format is PDF, and “We ask that all contributions be submitted as MS Word documents.” Note the intricate rules for citations—the idea here is of course that authors painstakingly construct all of this manually in Word. The submitted Word file is apparently then imported into InDesign for typesetting: the classic manual process—at least, you could say, no pretension of “digitality.”

If you ask me, the traditional “camera-ready” publishing (i.e., authors submit a PDF formatted to the specifications) as practiced by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) or the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) is still way ahead of the humanities, whether “digital” or not. In the humanities, we do not really need to think about “the future of scholarly publishing” when it has not even arrived in the 1990s.


  • [Piotrowski 2016] Piotrowski, M. (2016). Future publishing formats. In Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Symposium on Document Engineering (DocEng ’16), New York, NY, USA, pp. 7-8. ACM. DOI:doi:10.1145/2960811.2967170

2 thoughts on “Digital Humanities Publishing

  1. For the Digital Humanities conference, I believe the TEI XML files are used for the database of abstracts from past conferences, which is linked (with brief explanation) from . I imagine that the word-processor files are required as well simply because the conference organizers do not have a reliable toolchain for typesetting abstracts from the TEI XML files.

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes, there is this database, but it’s hardly a very convincing argument for this extremely labor-intensive workflow. With respect to databases, it is also important to remember that inside the structure, you can put anything you want—check out the bibliographic references…

      Oh, and the book of abstracts is generated from the TEI.

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