On public vs private research

Back from Würzburg, where I attended the “Digital Palaeography” ESF exploratory workshop (talks and abstracts here) – and on which Dr. Dominique Stutzmann reports in his blog – I find myself pondering on issues of public vs private research. Youtie, times before the widespread adoption of digital tools, already commented on this issue in the context of papyrology. In his 1963 paper [1], he presents the internal workings of what papyrologists do. In doing so, he defines public papyrology, which consists in presenting the results of papyrological work by publishing editions of the studied texts. These editions usually offer a diplomatic transcript, a reconstruction of the text, a commentary on the presented interpretation, and sometimes a line drawing of the text, along with photographs of the text-bearing artefact. Once the edition published, further interpretation of the text is open to scholarly debate and to its use as evidence for further historical research. Upstream, the work of the papyrologist, however, is much more of a private activity, which aims to produce a transcription of the text, and is paved with what Youtie [1, p27] describes as:

“[…]the doubts, the hesitations, the numerous false starts and new beginnings; the guesses sometimes confirmed, sometimes rejected by the script;  the continual recourse to books for information of every sort – lexical, grammatical,  palaeographical, historical, legal; the interludes of exhaustion and depression[…]”

Unsurprisingly, I realized at the Digital Palaeography workshop that palaeographers seem to undergo the same type of process. In his keynote, Prof. Eef Overgaauw underlined the fact that uncertainty is ubiquitous: “No answer is final” he said, “No result is conclusive. They are all provisional.”

Not only does this chime with my current reflections on uncertainty, it also made me acknowledge that the notions of public and private research do likely extend beyond papyrology and palaeography, and that the shifting shape of uncertainty (the type of uncertainty that is not quantified!) is usually contained to the realm of private research. And, as a researcher, I do have my own way of dealing with my uncertainties: just days ago I noticed that I reached for my pencil to scribble insecure back-of-the-envelope calculations and tentative software design choices, whereas when I write a to-do list or take notes at a meeting or lecture, I decidedly use my ballpoint pen (yes, I do still use a paper log book – and that might well be significant too!)

So the questions that I’m pondering now run along this axis:

When attempting to digitize the process of interpretation that operates the transition from artefact to meaning, we’re dealing with private research, and mutable uncertainty. Beyond the difficulties that this poses in terms of what to capture, does that mean that I’m aiming to infringe (for lack of a better term) on the privacy of research?

Similarly to the changing notions of public and private identities in digital social networks (e.g., see this UCL  lunch hour lecture about Twitter and the notion of public and private), could it be that aiming to digitize the process of interpretation might displace the notions of public and private research and blur the frontier between them?

Does it mean that the private uncertainty will end up in the public realm? And if so, is that such a bad thing? Wouldn’t it just be showing integrity in research?

And after all, isn’t one of the aims of research to produce reproducible, understandable and verifiable output?

Wouldn’t the best way to do this be to be able to keep track of knowledge creation as a process? It is not just data provenance (see this blog post by Prof. David de Roure for more about data provenance and reproducibility/repeatability) that needs to be ascertained, but the process that led to the results we produce.

Rather than chasing an elusive (and possibly utopian?) objectivity and attempting to resist interpretation at all cost, couldn’t we rather document our research processes, give an insight to colleagues as to how we’ve come to produce a result?

[1]    H. C. Youtie. The papyrologist: artificer of fact. Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 4(1):19–33, 1963.


Ségolène Tarte

I am a senior researcher at the e-Research Centre, University of Oxford, UK, where my research interests revolve around the seamless integration of digital tools within Humanities research, the impact of digital approaches on Humanities methodologies as well as the impact of Humanities methodologies on the development of digital tools. These interests brought three main themes to the fore in my research endeavours: materiality and its relationship to the digital; expertise and the multifarious questions of methodology in the Humanities; and multi/inter-disciplinarity and how that affects research processes. Originally an image processing specialist, my research focus turned to the Digital Humanities, when I started working with Classicists on images of Ancient papyri. The methodologies that I draw upon in my research are inspired and informed by ethnography, philosophy, and the cognitive sciences.

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