Building the Social Scholarly Edition: Results and Findings from A Social Edition of the Devonshire Manuscript

July 17, 2013, 13:30 | Long Paper, Embassy Regents C

1. Introduction and Background

a. History and Context

Social media technologies can extend and enhance scholarly conversation while challenging traditional notions of textual authority and peer review. Twitter facilitates resource and idea sharing with a speed and ease formerly only possible at conferences; Facebook allows the formation of communities of interest founded not on geography but affinity; blogs disseminate research for widespread discussion; and, most significantly, Wikipedia has become the most popular and largest single reference resource in history, with more than 14 million articles in over 250 languages produced by 1 million monthly contributors (Wikimedia Report Card, 2012). This long paper reflects on the construction of a social scholarly edition of the Devonshire Manuscript that attempted to harness emerging social media environments to produce a new type of scholarly edition, one that allows multiple stakeholders to access, contribute, and discuss its construction. [1]

In this paper we recount the incipient formation of a new type of editing community, one that we argue is defined by iterative publication of material, multiple communities of interest contributing to a single project, the use of technology to facilitate these contributions, and the growing importance of self-directed learning to scholarly editing. Our successes and, just as importantly, our moments of failure, offer insight into best practices for a type of “facilitative scholarship” that will likely become increasingly common as comfort with social media technologies grows within the academy. As outlined in a DH2012 poster session (Crompton and Siemens, 2012), we designed the public editing process for the social edition from the start to encourage communication across editorial communities while preserving the peer review process. These communities included the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab team, the project advisory board, the online Iter Community (http://www.itergateway.org/), early modern critics and scholars operating in the blogosphere, Wikibook and Wikipedia users, Tudor enthusiasts, and the general public. [] 2

b. Materials of the Project

The Devonshire Manuscript (British Library Additional MS 17,492) contains approximately 200 items (Southall, 1964: 143, Remley, 1994: 47), including poems, verse fragments, excerpts from longer works, anagrams, jottings, and doodles by a coterie of men and women centered on the court of Queen Anne Boleyn. Inscribed in over a dozen hands, the manuscript has long been valued as a source of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poetry. In addition to 129 of his poems, the volume contains other transcribed lyrics and original work by numerous court figures, including Mary Shelton, Lady Margaret Douglas, Mary (Howard) Fitzroy, and Lord Thomas Howard (Southall, 1964: 143). These multiple contributors often comment and evaluate each other’s work through marginal notation and in-line interjection. In addition to a consideration of the volume as “a medium of social intercourse” (Love and Marotti, 2002: 63), the multi-layered and multi-authored composition of the Devonshire Manuscript make it an ideal text for experimentation in social editing.

The Social Edition of The Devonshire Manuscript project manifests Ray Siemens’ earlier argument that social media environments might enable new editing practices (Siemens et al., 2012a). In building an edition of an early modern text on the principles of open access and editorial transparency in both production and dissemination, we have integrated scholarly content into environments maintained by the social-editorial communities that have sprung up on the web; most notably, these include the Wikimedia suite of projects (Wikipedia, Wikibooks, Wikisource). We have run an experiment to see how one might build an edition which is scholarly in a traditional sense, but which extends the editorial conversation into multiple pre-existing social media platforms including blogs, wiki discussion pages, dedicated Renaissance and early modern online community spaces, Skype-enabled interviews with our advisory group, and Twitter.

2. The Complexity of the New Scholarly Editing Community

a. Iterative Publication

Perhaps more than any other editorial choice, the iterative publication of the social edition of the Devonshire Manuscript departed most clearly from traditional scholarly editing practices. We have, in effect published (or are in the perpetual process of publishing) two versions of the edition in two mediums: a fixed PDF version, distributed to the project’s advisory board, and a version housed on the publicly-editable Wikibooks. We are currently working with multiple publishing partners to produce a second online edition, an e-reader edition, and a print edition to meet the needs of a broad and varied readership. These versions were planned to productively inform and influence each other’s development, with cross-pollination of editorial input across platforms. Although they did so, each medium also engendered difficulties in communication, coordination, and expectations to be overcome or accommodated—with varying results.

b. Communities of Interest and Technologies of Communication

As outlined above, a central aim of the project was to facilitate knowledge transfer and creation between multiple editorial communities, all of whom were invested differently in the project. These ranged from individual academics giving feedback as advisors to interested members of the public in contact with project staff via Twitter. These groups adopted, considered, and, at times, rejected different types of communication technologies in fascinating ways. Wikibook discussion pages were considered by established academics to be spaces meant for peer review; wiki editors explained that they were in fact where confrontations over edits usually occurred. Wiki editors were very helpful with questions of coding and technical production of content, while other communities felt deeply uncomfortable editing posted content. Sustained discussions in the Iter Community space proved difficult, while members of the public interested in Tudor culture followed our work avidly and often interacted with us on Twitter. Bloggers focused on the early modern period helped to generate discussion and disseminate reports as our edition building progress, but chose to limit their direct involvement with producing the edition. In often surprising ways, the technologies of communication each group used came to define, in some cases, the communities of interest and their respective investments. Considered as a whole, our project suggests that social media technologies can be harnessed for productive interaction and discussion by those scholars invested in a content area or project, but that they require comprehensive oversight by dedicated staff to develop and maintain participation in knowledge construction and dissemination.

c. Self-Directed Learning

Wikimedia content is openly editable by any individual. Project staff quickly reconsidered this theoretically nonexistent barrier to entry, though, when coding of the edition began in Wikibooks. Resembling a cross between HTML, XML, and CSS, Wikitext language is idiosyncratic and required a great deal of time and experimentation on the part of project staff to use effectively. Given the central importance of lab staff to the production of this edition, we have realized that this ad-hoc program of self-directed study produced a new community: young scholars, mostly masters level and younger doctoral students, who have shown interest in digital scholarly production. In other words, those usually construed as “assisting” in large projects here took on increasingly centralized roles in coordinating community input, coding the social edition in Wikibooks, discussing the project with various communities, and writing and disseminating critical research on the project as a whole.

3. Conclusion

a. The Open Source Edition?

The basic structures of the social edition are completely open for manipulation and repurposing. The formation, maintenance, and oversight of multiple communities, however, is central the success of any such open edition. Community investment provides a foundation for a technologically facilitated, process-driven approach. As our full paper will discuss in more detail, developing such communities is often difficult, with success depending on intensive and regular engagement and oversight. It is difficult for disparate communities, even when facilitated by social media technologies, to effectively come together for intellectual production. As even the well-regarded Transcribe Bentham project has widely discussed, crowdsourcing textual transcription—much less scholarly editing and production—is fraught with difficulties we are only beginning to navigate (Cause et al., 2012a; Causer et al., 2012b). In this reconfigured landscape of scholarly production, where we are likely “witnessing the nascent stages of a new ‘social’ edition existing at the intersection of social media and digital editing” (Siemens et al., 2012a: 446), however, we are not without models: the open source community, especially those groups devoted to general tool building and knowledge construction (OpenOffice, Wikimedia, Linux, Mozilla) is a powerful articulation of possible ways the technologically facilitated social production of intellectual content may fruitfully develop—given a robust and vibrant community of interest.

b. Ways Forward

The past two years of work suggests that some blend of intensive oversight and engagement with defined communities, along with a receptivity to spontaneously formed communities of affinity—as supported by both the Transcribe Bentham project (Causer, 2012b) and our own observations—is necessary to effectively implement social scholarly production. Only by becoming effective promoters, facilitators, and instigators can digital humanists provide an effective locus around which multiple communities can cohere. Although we encountered certain difficulties in facilitating knowledge exchange among various communities, on the whole we learned how to effectively facilitate community interaction across and between mediums and communities to produce scholarly knowledge in new ways.


Causer, T., J. Tonra, and V. Wallace (2012a). Transcription maximized; expense minimized? Crowdsourcing and editing The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham. Literary and Linguistic Computing 27(2). 119-137.
Crompton, C., R. Siemens, and the ETCL and INKE Research Groups. (2013) 'Vertues Noble & Excelent’? Digital Collaboration and the Social Edition. Digital Humanities Quarterly. In consideration. [internally circulated for comment and revision]
Crompton, C., and R. Siemens (2012). The Social Edition: Scholarly Editing Across Communities. In DH2012. 16-22 July 2012. Abstract available at http://www.dh2012.uni-hamburg.de/conference/programme/abstracts/the-social-edition-scholarly-editing-across-communities/.
Love, H., and A. F. Marotti (2002). Manuscript Transmission and Circulation. In Loewenstein, D., and J. Mueller. (eds).The Cambridge History of Early Modern English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 55-80.
Remley, P. G. (1994). Mary Shelton and Her Tudor Literary Milieu. Rethinking the Henrician Era: Essays on Early Tudor Texts and Contexts. In Herman, P. C. (ed). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 40-77.
Siemens, R., C. Warwick, R. Cunningham, T. Dobson, A. Galey, S. Ruecker, S. Schreibman, and the INKE Team (2009). Codex Ultor: Toward a Conceptual and Theoretical Foundation for New Research on Books and Knowledge Environments. Digital Studies/Le champ numérique 1(2). http://www.digitalstudies.org/ojs/index.php/digital_studies/article/view/177/220.
Siemens, R., M. Timney, C. Leitch, C. Koolen, A. Garnett, with the ETCL, INKE, and PKP Research Groups (2012a). Toward modeling the social edition: An approach to understanding the electronic scholarly edition in the context of new and emerging social media. Literary and Linguistic Computing. 27(4). 445-461.
Siemens, R., M. Timney, C. Leitch, C. Koolen, and A. Garnett (2012b). Understanding the Electronic Scholarly Edition in the Context of New and Emerging Social Media: Selected, Annotated Bibliographies. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 6(11). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/6/1/000111/000111.html.
Southall, R. (1964). The Devonshire Manuscript Collection of Early Tudor Poetry, 1532–41. RES 15, 142-50. WikiMedia Report Card. (2012). http://reportcard.wmflabs.org/.


1. For an overview of pertinent critical contexts surrounding the modeling of the social edition, see Siemens et al., “Understanding the Electronic Scholarly Edition in the Context of New and Emerging Social Media.”

2. These efforts are in keeping with the aims of the Implementing New Knowledge Environment (INKE) Project, a $2.5 million, 7-year Major Collaborative Research Initiative (MCRI) grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada devoted to “exploring the future of the book from the perspective of its history.” See the INKE website http://inke.ca/ and Siemens et al., “Codex Ultor: Toward a Conceptual and Theoretical Foundation for New Research on Books and Knowledge Environments.”