Knowledge & Skill Capacity for Digital Scholarship: A Global Benchmarking Study

For a brief introduction to our study, please see this handout.


Over the last ten years, digital scholarship (DS) programs have grown rapidly, supporting the creation, production, analysis, and or dissemination of scholarship using new technologies with an emphasis on digital and computational techniques. Unfortunately, we lack sufficient understanding of the skills and competencies required for digital scholarship. Some digital scholars work in conjunction with one or more DS center, while others collaborate with more traditional campus units such as libraries, research computing groups, and intellectual property offices. Regardless of the formal setting, DS requires new support structures for both knowledge creation and dissemination. Although Digital Humanities and Digital Scholarship centers have existed on select university campuses for as many as 20 years, only recently have they become common across a range of institutions. As such, very little formal research has been done into the human resources needed to support them. Can a set of core competencies and skills to support DS be identified? Does it remain constant across disciplines? Finally, do competencies and skills remain consistent across geographic areas and cultures?

To comprehend both what digital scholarship professionals need to know and how to inculcate these skills and ways of thinking, this benchmarking study will identify and analyze “best in class” digital scholarship programs. With the generous support of the Mellon Foundation, the investigators will collect information about leading digital scholarship programs, conduct interviews and site visits at ten leading centers around the world, and determine the key workforce-related factors associated with those centers’ success. They will generate a set of benchmarks that can inform professional development programs and new digital scholarship programs, always with an eye to continuous improvement and shared learning. Given the interconnected and collaborative nature of much digital scholarship, the research will be global in scope. The researchers will explore various approaches to supporting digital scholarship across North America, Europe and the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Do the skills and domain knowledge required to support new research models vary from one area to another? Do traditional research practices and cultural norms affect the way DS is conducted?

The project will be completed by March 2015.


This study will establish benchmarks for developing skills and capacities crucial to digital scholarship. Whereas a skill is a learned capacity to carry out a specific task (such as proficiency in a specific programming language), a capacity is a more abstract ability or fitness for success in a specific area. Psychologist David Middleton categorizes competencies as falling into one of three categories: cognitive, such as computational expertise; emotional, such as self awareness; and social, such as inter and transdisciplinary collaboration. In establishing benchmarks, this study will identify best practices that foster superior performance.


Pursuing what Alstete calls an “external collaborative benchmarking” approach, the researchers will compare centers that are not immediate competitors. Not only will the project collect input and output data (the hallmark of many benchmarking efforts in higher education), but it will also drill down into the best practices required to achieve success. In order to establish benchmarks, the researchers will conduct semi-structured interviews with key faculty, administrators, librarians and technologists engaged in DS at ten locations. The specific locations will be chosen based on current and emerging strength in DS and reflect a broad spectrum of subject domains, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. The sample will include institutions at different points in the DS development continuum (both well established and newer centers). Preference will be given to locations that have articulated clear vision and implementation strategies and demonstrate strong records of successful projects and national/international recognition. Given the benchmarking framework, participants must be prepared to share their experiences with the broader DS community and be eager to learn from others.

Prior to the site visits, participating institutions will be asked to provide the following data:

    • Historical information (year of establishment…)

    • key planning documents

    • partnerships (internal and external)

    • governance structure

    • summaries of key achievements and recognition

    • some high-level financial information (including grants)

    • detailed staffing information (numbers, categories of staff, educational backgrounds, key competencies and skills, intentions for future hires)

    • researchers (numbers, disciplines, key competencies and skills)

During interviews, researchers will explore both the internal (workforce) and external (faculty researchers, teams) dimensions of skills and competencies important to supporting digital scholarship.

    • Internal Workforce: What competencies and skills do your staff members currently have? Which competencies and skills have been instrumental in your success to date? Which competencies and skills do you consider “core” and which do you consider “peripheral?” What competencies and skills are missing?

    • External (researchers, teams): Describe the competencies and skills of your most successful researchers. Describe the competencies and skills of your typical researcher. Describe the interaction between center staff and researchers. Describe the workings of campus teams.

Upon completion of the planning project, the researchers will write a report documenting key findings and identifying areas for further research. The report will test and make recommendations concerning the value of chosen methodologies. Results will be shared with the research university community in a variety of forums (both North American and international).

Project Team

The principal investigators include Xuemao Wang, Dean and University Librarian at the University of Cincinnati Libraries; Jon Cawthorne, Dean of Libraries at West Virginia University; Vivian Lewis, University Librarian at McMaster University; and Lisa Spiro, Executive Director of Digital Scholarship Services at Rice University. The principal investigators together have deep expertise in library and information management, global librarianship, organizational development,  leadership, digital scholarship, the future academic library, strategic planning, workforce transformation, and scenario planning.

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