Pitt, CMU researchers redevelop software for academic publishing

Benjamin Ogrodnik said he is often frustrated when traditional publication methods he uses are unable to include films and project methodology as part of the final product.

“A finished article is just a really refined argument. The story is in the creation of it,” Ogrodnik said. “There is so much I have to leave out, like conversations, memories and interviews.”

There may soon be a new publication method available for scholars, allowing people like Ogrodnik — a film studies grad student — to store the entire process of a published project from start to finish. This ongoing project — called “Digits” — plans to push scholarly publishing away from PDF format to better display it on the web, keeping it easily accessible and relevant.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded four researchers at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University a $60,000 grant in December to support the Digits project — a proposed solution to the struggles that come with publishing digital media projects, such as not being able to archive online sources and easily present research methods.

The main purpose of Digits is to use software containers — programs that are self-contained and can easily run on different computers — as an efficient way to store all the documents, media and sources associated with a digital research project.

Jessica Otis, a Digits team member and a digital humanities specialists at CMU, said Digits is not a completely original idea, but rather a reinvention of already existing software containers, applying it to publishing in the digital humanities field.

“We are not building a new way to do containers, we are just trying to put the infrastructure around container tech that makes this useful in scholarly academia,” Otis said.

Digits also makes it easier for content to be conserved through the use of self-preserving containers that are always available and easily accessible. Rather than losing track of the digital projects they do in school, students would be able to create a digital portfolio of “digits” —  the proposed repurposed software container created to easily store and preserve digital media projects — with their entire work which they can present to employers.

“You could put work in a digit, and you could shut the project down, but the instant you want to resurrect it, you could click a button on the digit and you open it back up and here is the whole functioning thing,” Otis said.

The idea originated when a group of digital humanities scholars came together and lamented the trouble of sharing and storing digital media projects, Otis said.

“Digits is basically something that was borne out of our frustration with the fact that when you are doing a digital humanities project or digital scholarship project, there is no easy way to publish it,” she said.

While Digits is still in the planning stage, the group is using the grant to hold advisory board meetings from which they can learn the needs of scholars and professionals and how to improve the idea.

During the grant period, the members of the project have also been identifying the potential uses of digital containers in humanities publications and writing white papers — authoritative reports meant to help readers solve a problem or understand an issue.

The team is planning to have their next advisory board meeting this coming summer, after which they hope to create an initial blueprint design for Digits containers.

Digits would allow scholars to easily start and publish their work using online infrastructure with more benefits than traditional publishing methods. According to Matt Burton, a visiting assistant professor at Pitt and Digits team member, users will be able to choose a template from a number of options and create their own content, writings, pictures and graphs, combine it all and publish it in the Digits ecosystem.

“It would be a lot easier to do it with a digit rather than doing it from scratch,” Burton said.

Though individual companies would be able to choose to charge customers for using Digits, scholars should be able to easily move and store their projects in Digits with the same or lower cost of working with PDFs or text documents.  

Henry Skerritt, the curator of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at University of Virginia and former editor and publisher of the Contemporaneity Journal at Pitt, described Digits as an efficient solution to the struggles of digital publishing.

“Any scholar uses a lot of online sources, and being able to store and archive them in a manner that is easily accessible and is going to save time and money is very valuable,” Skerritt said.

Though the project is still months away from implementation, Skerritt believes that Digits will revolutionize publishing in the humanities by requiring scholars to utilize new technology.

“I think Digits is an important step forward,” Skerritt said. “Accessing journals or articles online is the future of journal publication. Getting scholars to move past the notion of hard copy publication is important and is challenging.”

Otis said the project has given her hope that when she works on projects with faculty and grad students in the future she will be able to see them to the end of their products and not have to worry about it being lost as years pass.

“I wouldn’t just be starting something with someone and saying good luck,” she said. “I am able to ensure that at the end of the project, that if it takes a student five years to get a job, your project will still be there for you.”


Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story referred to Matt Burton as a “visiting assistant professor at Pitt from the University of Michigan.” This information is incorrect and has since been changed to “visiting assistant professor at Pitt.” The Pitt News regrets this error.