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Peer review

Peer review and evaluation of digital resources for the arts and humanities by Jane Winters

Peer review and evaluation of digital resources for the arts and humanities


1.         Context

In 2006, the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK funded the Institute of Historical Research and the Royal Historical Society to investigate establishing a framework for the peer review and evaluation of digital resources for the arts and humanities.

The mechanisms for the peer review and evaluation of the traditional print outputs of scholarly research – monographs, journal articles and the like – are well established, if increasingly under strain. But no equivalent exists for assessing the value of digital resources and of the scholarly work that leads to their creation. A consistently-applied system of peer review and evaluation (of both the intellectual content and the technical architecture of digital resources) would serve a number of purposes.

  • First, it would reassure academics and their host institutions of the worth of time spent in the creation of digital resources. It was a common complaint among the resource creators whom we consulted that such activity, unless it is generating really substantial levels of income, is still seen as subordinate to more traditional forms of research.

  • Second, it would enable us to establish those types of resource which are of most use and interest to the academic community – of clear importance to both end users and funding bodies.

  • Third, it would contribute to the development of common standards and guidelines for accessibility and usability.

  • And finally, it would inform proposals to ensure the sustainability and preservation of high-quality scholarly material.

Peer review is fundamental to the academic research process. It underpins traditional scholarly publishing, both monograph and journal, and informs the decision-making mechanisms of various national funding bodies. In the UK, for example, all of the research councils impose a lengthy and complex peer review process on all applications to their various grants schemes.

Evaluation of research output is also of considerable importance to the academic community, and again there are robust mechanisms in place. Monographs, and less frequently journal articles, are evaluated by means of the published review. The majority of research projects which receive public or charitable funding are required to produce annual and/or ‘end of award’ reports outlining their progress, explaining their decision making processes, and addressing any areas in which they have failed to meet their original remit.

But these mechanisms have not been successfully transferred to the digital environment – or at least not entirely. To take the most obvious example, digital resources are not widely reviewed in scholarly journals, alongside their print counterparts. Some of the most high profile resources – for example the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or Early English Books Online – create a flurry of interest, but such reviews are notable because they are so unusual. Even where assessment does take place, a holistic evaluation of digital resources has proven somewhat elusive – a division between the purely ‘technical’ and the purely ‘academic’ persists.


2.         The project

So this was what our project sought to address – and we got off to a rather more problematic start than we’d anticipated. The more we discussed it, the more it became apparent that different people understood different things by both ‘peer review’ and ‘evaluation’ – and in the context of digital resources, this was largely related to the point at which the assessment occurred.

Peer review was the simpler of the two concepts – for our purposes, it was understood to mean the formal assessment of proposed research. It is undertaken at a sufficiently early stage to influence the course of that research, the nature of its outputs, and ultimately even whether it takes place at all (or is made available to a wider audience). It is usually undertaken by a single academic working in a related field, or by a group of subject experts.

However, we identified two distinct types of evaluation:

  • that which takes place during or at the end of a research project as part of a formal process;

  • and that which is undertaken by end users, whether informally as feedback or in publicly-available reviews.

In the digital environment, evaluation is most usefully seen as part of an ongoing and iterative process. Digital resources require varying degrees of technical and academic input over time, but few can be said to be ‘complete’ in the way that a book or journal article is complete once published.


3.         The survey 

Once we had established our terms of reference, we could get to work. The first stage of the project was an online survey. The survey questions were designed to elicit opinion as to the usage of digital resources, and no distinction was made between those who are solely users of digital resources and those who are both users and creators. There were 777 respondents to the survey, the majority of whom (56 per cent) identified themselves as being based within UK Higher Education Institutions.

This is not the place to go into the survey in any detail, but it is worth highlighting a few key findings. In response to the question, ‘What is important in determining the value of a particular resource for your own research?’, perhaps unsurprisingly more than three-quarters of respondents indicated content. The next most important factors, in order of popularity, were authority, the lack of availability or inaccessibility of the original analogue material, and comprehensiveness. It is only then that we get to usability, the ability to conduct complex searches and so on – that is, the more technical elements of a resource. One of the most surprising results of this question was the lack of weight accorded to transformative impact on research, with only 23 per cent of respondents regarding this as very important (when the question was reversed, almost as many – 21 per cent – indicated that it was of little or no importance to them). It is a curious response, which suggests that researchers do not always recognise, or articulate, the transformative impact of digital resources on their research practice. It may, however, indicate that, for many, what is important is not innovation for its own sake – they want increased and enhanced access to what they already in some sense have.

This question also highlighted the failure of many researchers to engage with the question of sustainability – only 32 per cent felt that the permanence of a resource was very important to them. Time and again in the focus groups convened by the project team, the sustainability and permanence of digital resources were cited as major concerns for both creators and users – creators, of course, have a vested interest in seeing the outputs of their research maintained, but users also identified the problem of ‘disappearing resources’ as a barrier to take-up. Interestingly, this may be a function of the type of digital resource – there was much greater recognition of the importance of permanence in relation to journal articles published online than in relation to, say, large datasets.


Finally, and most significantly for us, 71 per cent of respondents considered

peer evaluation and recommendation to be either important or extremely important in their selection of digital resources for use in their personal research. One academic noted: ‘peer review and provenance are key for me – I can get non-peer reviewed material any time through Google and evaluate its usefulness myself. It is no substitute for the academic resources’.

Other consultation was undertaken throughout the year, with a series of user and focus groups convened to draw out the issues raised in the survey, and a number of interviews were held with key opinion formers. A benchmarking study was also carried out, testing some of the proposals and guidelines that had emerged in the course of discussion. All of this fed into our conclusions.


4.         Conclusions

The main conclusions of the report fall under three headings.


The first is cultural change 

The need for cultural change was mentioned by many of the participants in the project, by which was meant a change of attitude towards digital resources and their creators, and towards their use for scholarly research. It was thought that this cultural shift was in process – indeed, it was pointed out that many academics already implicitly trust the digital medium, using email as a regular means of academic correspondence, and frequently consulting digital resources such as JSTOR or the Royal Historical Society Bibliography online. It is, of course, the case that for digital resources to become firmly embedded in research culture, there needs to be an accepted mechanism for assessing their value – where we came in! – but cultural change can be driven in other ways.

  • First, there needs to be a greater recognition that there is more than one model for research in the arts and humanities. Traditionally, the most valued research outputs have been the work of lone scholars –the creation of digital resources, by contrast, almost always involves collaborative or team working, whether between individual scholars or between researchers and their supporting computing departments. The academy needs to place due value not just on the outputs of collaborative research, but on the work itself. This will also go some way to solving the problem of how to treat the largely unheralded work that is undertaken at the intersection of the technical and the scholarly.

  • Second, there needs to be much greater investment in the training of researchers both to use and to evaluate digital resources. The inability of significant sections of the academic community genuinely to comment on and assess the value of digital resources makes any peer review process difficult to manage, and also undermines confidence in its results. Learned societies and subject organisations have a significant role to play in ensuring that their communities engage with this issue, and university libraries and computing centres should be encouraged to provide training to mid and late career academics as well as to new researchers.

  • Finally, the editors of scholarly journals can effect change, by routinely commissioning reviews of digital resources and by encouraging their authors to cite digital material where it is available. The creators of digital resources can also help with this last, by providing clear citation guidance on their websites. Some of the reviews commissioned as part of the benchmarking study for this project were published in the IHR’s online journal, Reviews in History, for example Elisabeth van Houts review of The Narrative Sources from the Medieval Low Countries ( The journal’s editorial board have subsequently agreed that reviews of this type should be actively pursued, and it is hoped that others will follow their lead.


Peer review 

Many of the project’s recommendations concern the mechanics of the peer review process, and specifically as it affects the assessment of research proposals to UK research councils:

  • I would be interested to know how this works in other European countries, but in applications for funding in the UK any ‘technical’ element is assessed separately from the academic justification for a particular project. The majority of those whom we consulted felt that this was an unhelpful and artificial division which hindered peer review of all elements of a research proposal.

  • Peer reviewers should be chosen primarily for their subject expertise, but their ability to assess the technical elements of a proposal should also be taken into account. This would both make the process easier to manage – reducing the numbers of academics turning down peer review requests – and make it more robust. Again, learned societies and subject organisations should be prepared to assist in the selection of appropriate reviewers. Bearing in mind the skills gap identified by this and other projects, in the short to medium term it may be necessary to consider review by a subject specialist in conjunction with a humanities and computing practitioner.



The final set of recommendations concerned the procedures for the evaluation of digital resources.

  • First, research councils and other large funding bodies should be encouraged to conduct post-completion assessments of those projects which they support financially, with both the evaluation report and any response from the resource creators made publicly available. Any such review should be conducted in a spirit of openness, so that resource creators are encouraged to discuss freely any problems that they have encountered and any innovative solutions that they have adopted, for the benefit of the research community as a whole.

  • Both guidelines for potential reviewers and a check-list of basic technical standards would be a useful addition to the process. Our project produced drafts of both, which can be consulted on the IHR’s website (

  • Interestingly, although again perhaps not altogether surprisingly, there was almost complete rejection of any metrics-based approach to assessing the value of digital resources. This was articulated most clearly in connection with usage. While there was acceptance that resources designed for a wide audience might in some way be deemed to have failed if they were unable to demonstrate high levels of usage, the relative popularity or unpopularity of a resource should, and indeed could not be used as a significant indicator of academic value. The introduction of some system of kite-marking (that is, adding a stamp of approval) was also felt to be highly undesirable, and many project participants expressed concern that it would lead to over-centralisation and the eventual stifling of innovation. The project concluded that any system of evaluation or review should not adopt a simple ‘pass/fail’ approach when considering a digital resource in its entirety. Subjectivity was thought to be vital to the assessment process, and should not be masked by any more rigid system of indicating ‘approval’.

 While there is a role for subject organisations and learned societies in guiding peer review and evaluation, and even recommending or       supplying the personnel to undertake such activities, no one body         should have the power to say whether or not a resource is ‘good’ or   ‘bad’.


5.         Wider applications 

So, once a structure is in place for assessing the ‘value’ of digital resources, what are its practical applications?

  • It facilitates the assessment of digital resources, and the work which goes into their creation, with obvious benefits to both resource creators and their host institutions.

  • It assists users in making decisions about which digital resources are most appropriate for use in their own research.

  • It assists librarians in making purchasing decisions.

  • And it helps funding bodies to assess whether a particular project should be supported, whether it successfully meets its aims and objectives, and ultimately whether it has in some sense delivered value for money. These criteria in turn inform decisions about sustainability and preservation.


Jane Winters