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How Does “Big Data” Change the Research Landscape for the Humanities and Social Sciences?

Contact: Kathlin Smith


How Does “Big Data” Change the Research Landscape for the Humanities and Social Sciences?

New Report Provides First Public Appraisal of Digging into Data Challenge

Washington, DC, June 12, 2012-The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) today issued the first public appraisal of the Digging into Data Challenge, an international grant program first funded by the US National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the US National Science Foundation, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) in the United Kingdom, and the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

The report, One Culture. Computationally Intensive Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, was made public today at the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries JCDL 2012 conference in Washington, DC.

The Digging into Data Challenge was launched in 2009 to better understand how “big data” changes the research landscape for the humanities and social sciences. Scholars in these disciplines now use massive databases of materials that range from digitized books, newspapers, and music to transactional data such as web searches, sensor data, or cell phone records. The Challenge seeks to discover what new, computationally based research methods might be applied to these sources.

In its first year, the Digging into Data Challenge made awards to eight teams of scholars, librarians, and computer and information scientists. Over the following two years, report authors Christa Williford and Charles Henry conducted site visits, interviews, and focus groups to understand how these complex international projects were being managed, what challenges they faced, and what project teams were learning from the experience.

Their findings are presented in One Culture, along with a series of recommendations for researchers, administrators, scholarly societies, academic publishers, research libraries, and funding agencies. The recommendations are “urgent, pointed, and even disruptive,” write the authors. “To address them, we must recognize the impediments of tradition that hinder the contemporary university’s ability to adapt to, support, or sustain this emerging research over time.”

Brett Bobley, Chief Information Officer and Director of the NEH Office of Digital Humanities, heads the Digging into Data Challenge. “Do we have big data in the humanities and social sciences? Yes-buckets of it,” he says. “But our ability to produce huge quantities of digital data has outstripped our ability to analyze and understand it. One Culture helps us to see not only why we would want a computer to assist us with our work, but how big data is changing the very nature of traditional humanistic research.”

Co-author and CLIR President Charles Henry said, “This report discloses the complexity and sophistication of humanities and social sciences research in a digital era. It underscores the excitement and potential of new discovery through deep collaboration across disciplines and affirms the continuity of traditional values and perspectives of scholarly communication in a data-dependent milieu. The report also seeks to animate a collective responsibility to more concertedly appreciate, extend, fund, and provide adequate services to sustain this remarkable research.”

In 2011, four additional funding bodies joined the four original cooperating agencies in support of fourteen new international collaborative research projects. These funders include the Institute of Museum and Library Services (US); the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK); the Economic and Social Research Council (UK); and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

JISC Director Stuart Dempster said, “We are proud to be a partner in this trans-Atlantic endeavor which aims to assist individual researchers, academic departments, and research institutions to succeed with the ‘data deluge’ in the humanities. For the UK to continue to punch above its weight in terms of digital scholarship and research it is vital for it to collaborate in ‘smart partnerships,’ which foster innovation in the development of tools, skills, and new research findings. This report shows that success in action.”

“The CLIR report is an excellent assessment of this unique and exciting international partnership,” said Gisèle Yasmeen, Vice-President, Research, at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. “The Digging into Data Challenge project is generating innovative computation and data analysis techniques to better advance research and we look forward to its continued success.”

“NSF has found the Digging into Data Challenge to be an excellent mechanism for enabling collaborative, data-intensive research in the social sciences and humanities,” said Elizabeth Tran, program officer in NSF’s Office of International Science and Engineering. “It has significantly reduced some the key barriers to conducting research across borders and has resulted in a number of truly international outstanding research projects.”

The report is available online at in pdf format. Case studies, not included in the print version, are also available in html format at the same url. Print copies will soon be available for ordering through the website.

CLIR is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning.

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