Humanities Data Project: Interviews

In this blog series we speak to humanities researchers about their research practice, their experiences in data sharing, and their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities associated with sharing humanities research data.

Perspectives on Data sharing in the Humanities: Don Shelton

Don Shelton is an independent researcher in the humanities, based in New Zealand. While his research has been published in traditional formats including academic journals, his main focus is on publishing extensive blogposts, annotations, field notes and images on his research-focused website. His reasons for doing so align with the commonly cited benefits of research data sharing: to encourage others to freely use and expand upon his research; to avoid data loss in the case of hardware failure; and “give back” in acknowledgement of the Open Access sources that he has found useful in his own research process.

In this blog he reflects on his experiences in accessing online resources to support his research, and how the development of his website led him to consider the importance of quality and accessibility in sharing his research materials online.

Hello Don, could you please introduce yourself and tell us about your research?

 I am now retired, but my career was in senior, decision-making executive roles, which required detailed, methodical and logical analysis, which frequently arrived at decisions in conflict with corporate “conventional wisdom”; thus I became sceptical of conventional wisdom. In parallel, I had an interest in philately, family history, and the artists and sitters in a collection of miniature portraits. Research techniques developed from those activities, now focus on art, literature, and medicine of the long 18th century: by drawing on contemporary original sources, especially those available on the Internet.

 Being retired, I do not have academic career, or monetary objectives, hence my prime focus is pure research, and sharing of open access conclusions, with a maximum number of people, for the benefit of all students – together with belated recognition for the 18th century author Tobias Smollett.

 What has been your experience of data sharing in the humanities? Have there been positive outcomes?

Firstly, the negative experiences: An independent researcher lacks university support; hence it was initially  difficult to publish research, although gradually easier as research credibility is gained when papers are published. From my research using 18th century sources online, I reluctantly derived a distrust of “academic wisdom”, as promulgated in many academic texts. This arose as opinions expressed in text are often in conflict with methodical analysis of original 18th century sources, and tend to promulgate and perpetuate previous errors. In seeking to share research into art, literature and medicine of this period, I was often dismayed by university disinterest being resistent to any dialogue politely raising queries regarding subjects taught.

Reflecting on the positive experiences, I believe a rising scepticism of academic wisdom and the time delays involved in publishing, necessitated doing “my own thing”: publishing my research notes as an openly accessible blog, available to anyone with Internet access.

To achieve, retain, and emhance research credibility, I believed it essential to include all research material on the blog, even where incomplete. This allows the research to be subject to review by my peers and be presented in a manner logical, accurate, and fully referenced to original sources.

 Do you believe that data sharing benefits your own research practice? How?

A significant benefit has been the need to develop clear research habits and discipline , including links to original sources via URL or texts. This, and the inclusion of supporting logic into the blog, has made it easy to “cut, paste, and edit” my draft academic papers.

The more “negative” aspects of data sharing did benefit my research. Scepticism of academic wisdom meant “I was on my own”, but this (coupled with free Internet availability of the 18th century literary sources), seemed like entering an Aladdin’s Cave of treasures!

The use of a user-friendly blog format allows research with minimal website administration.  Used with openly accessible Internet sources enabled my research to progress methodically and logically, and an ability to post and share research relying on via standard formatting, spell-check, and URLs to other websites. 

By posting on the Internet, there is reduced risk that if my PC crashes, or if anything should happen to me, there an assurance the research notes will continue to be freely available.

Accessing the Internet and sharing information in this way led early research into a late 18th century novel, “The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey,” (previously attributed to Mrs Carver) to reveal it was written by a prominent 19th century surgeon, Sir Anthony Carlisle. Similarly, other research strands have  resulted in revisions to prevailing academic wisdom, which are gradually being accepted for peer-review, and publication.

 Do you believe that data sharing benefits your research? How?

Data sharing have underpinned the development of my website, comprised of logical, methodical, detailed, and fully referenced material, including URL links. In developing the site, I  had the realisation a high standard of quality was required, as anyone, anywhere in the world, could review and critique blog logic, and content. A major benefit of a blog format, is that, as new research arises, it is easy to add to, or amend, previous related posts. That requires quality and discipline and, in turn, is a springboard, enabling easier preparation and submission for peer review, of original research papers.

Do you perceive challenges for humanities researchers in sharing their data? How might we

overcome them?

Academic histories of the long 18th century often rely on facts, traditionally falling under the

broad heading of “conventional wisdom,” which have become elevated to “certain truths” via ongoing

repetition over generations of academia. Then entrenched as ‘inviolable’ facts, by the power of the

printed word, via inclusion in multiple published texts.

Those ‘black and white’ facts are rarely subject to challenge: often due to a perceived academic prominence of the author, sometimes due to a fear of a contentious clamour from peers quoting ‘conventional wisdom’ from weighty texts, or from Thomas/Thomasina Gradgrinds, who have taught conventional wisdom for so many years, they regard any challenge to their long-held and entrenched views as impertinent.

A perception is that some universities, teaching 18C literature, have a vested interest in specifying set-texts authored by their professors, or lecturers, perhaps written a decade or more ago. With a risk those texts may contain material errors and/or discredited logic and opinion. Hence, a related concern that where courses rely on set-texts, students at univesities and schools, may be taught, and examined on, their knowledge of obselete texts. Thereby reinforcing errors, and misdirecting those students .

To counter this risk, it issuggested students interested in 18th century literature should be encouraged, wherever practical, to source and reference their own research direct to available to the openly available digitised sources online.

 Don’s website on 18th century English Literature is available to read here: The Lost Works of Tobias Smollett and the War of the Satirists; he has recently published a new eBook, Beneath the Varnish.