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December 22, 2010

A Nature for the Humanities

I am writing a piece at the moment on whether it is possible, or indeed even wise to start a journal in the humanities that has a similar market profile as Nature‚ the critical and popular science journal.

In physics there is a strong culture of collaborative writing. Academics will often work on a paper communally, sharing drafts and early ideas with colleagues very openly. In recent years the web has further supported this very specific and I think, special form of research communications. There is still a peer-reviewed journal article at the end of the process, although in physics these are almost always provided via open access routes. This seems a good way to think, so I will think openly here too.

In considering a humanities (and social sciences?) journal of this kind it might be good to start with the characteristics of Nature:

- Highest prestige of research and researchers
- Weekly publications in print and online
- Global public readership and subscriptions
- Massive potential impact for reputations and funding
- Broad discipline coverage but shared scientific approaches

To an extent, all journal editors would wish to have these characteristics associated with their publications. None of them are easy to achieve so to have attained all of them is very noteworthy. Nature balances quality research with a commitment, however tangential to the public understanding of science. This is a fairly recent term in its overt sense, perhaps most famously deployed by Oxford University in appointing Professor Richard Dawkins to a Chair of that title. The University of Warwick has also made an appointment to a Chair of the Public Understanding of Philosophy.

Nature is part of a movement to bring closer together the practitioners of science and those who have an intelligent interest in their subjects. It acts as a professional meeting place, where scientific terminology is used, but used explicitly. It is a lecture theatre with the doors wide open.

The question is; can this be done in the humanities? Let's deal with the stumbling blocks when comparing the humanities to the sciences:

- Less formal engagement with the public
- Vastly differing research practices and disciplines
- Fewer large grant-funding opportunities
- Fewer collaborative research communities
- Prestige exists primarily in monographs rather than journals

These are substantial issues. Nature's own reputation is based on transforming those of its contributors, or at least its potential to do so. A groundbreaking article in Nature can help to attract millions of dollars in research grants. It will make headline news around the world and will be read by the most influential people in science and the person on the street - well some people on certain streets anyway.

Do my colleagues in the humanities have the desire to create something with this power in our own disciplines? Is it possible or even needed? My considered view is that the answer to both questions is yes, and that now is the right time to think about making this happen.

I think the three challenges in delivering such a journal are:

- Ensuring the humanities matter (to agencies and the public)
- Agreeing that subject differences are a strength
- Promoting collaborative research projects and practices

In meeting these challenges it might be productive to imagine what the first issue of such a journal would look like. What tone should be set? One option I will work with for the moment is remarkably close to the 2011 Digital Resources for the Humanities and Arts conference, hosted by Nottingham University in China.

In terms of the pubic understanding of the humanities, a powerful way in‚ is cultural exchange. We live now in a time of massive global communication (might we call this journal Dialogue). This embraces the creative arts, performance, historiography, genealogy, fine art, sociology, economics, philosophy, languages, literatures, film, archaeology and almost every other academic discipline in the broader humanities. Set in the contexts of cultural engagement between the West and China, or between Western Europe, the US and Russia, or within the Americas or the role of Asia in the contemporary world or the importance of Europe and the US in its inception, surely there are stories here.

If we cannot create a journal founded on the principles associated with the study of the humanities, namely the sighting of things past to inform our present and influence the future, then we may stop the shift towards interdisciplinary research now. If we cannot find a way to communicate this body of knowledge to the public, then it has no real purpose other than academic curiosity - and why should government fund us to perform that?

Let's not let science dominate the dialogue between academia and society.


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"Let's not let science dominate the dialogue between academia and society"

Well, yes! Very interesting piece, covers some issues which I think are very important and too often ignored.

However, I'm not sure a journal is the answer, just as I'm not sure aping the science community's reactions to cuts in the '80s is either. A Nature for the Humanities just seems a little bit, well, 1860s. We need to think about something that fits the 2010's.

I'm also not convinced by the sense of a unified humanities which this sort of project encourages is productive (even more than I remain unconvinced of a unified science). Most of all, I wonder if it's all a bit too elitist. Part of me things humanities scholars would be much better off simply blogging and getting involved in/ running community events with people who might be touched by their research. I also personally think we need to re-think the structure of undergraduate degrees, and reflection on the connections between research and teaching rather than simply running off to further separate the two tasks.

Still, I wonder if a new style journal would be useful. A journal that retains academic advantages of peer review, whilst also using the web to acknowledge and capture the larger and ongoing conversation of published research. A journal that utilises the 'pseudo-event' of the publication to garner news coverage, but doesn't over-egg this (i.e. sees publication as means to encourage public debate of research rather than close it down and make research simply all about the reporting of research findings). A journal that works for the whole of humanities to encourage interdiscplinary awareness and collaboration rather than simply everyone going about their own little specialism under some rather mythical banner of cohesion. An explicitly non-snobby journal.

THAT sort of project could be brilliant. It wouldn't solve all the problems of humanities relationship with society, but it'd probably help.

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