On endings and new beginnings: My new role at the University of Edinburgh!



The start of the new academic semester sees the dust settling on a new adventure for me and my family: in October 2017 I left UCL to join the University of Edinburgh, where I am the new Chair of Digital Cultural Heritage. I’m truly excited to have joined a university that has made such a strong commitment to applying data science into all aspects of academic, civic, and industrial life. As well as leading Digital Scholarship in the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, I’ll be establishing a new research centre in data science, culture and society (yet to be formally named! we’re still deciding… ) which will bootstrap, enable, support, and promote digital and data-based research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. My post is part of an expansion built around the new Edinburgh Futures Institute: a new university institute which will tackle societal and cultural issues via data science, and offer a raft of innovative teaching programmes. In 2021 the EFI will move into its permanent home at the heart of the University in the refurbished Old Royal Infirmary, in the city centre of Edinburgh, and it is exhilarating to be part of the team helping to scope out the direction and implementation of a new institute, with all the opportunities and challenges it will bring. I’ve posted a picture of the EFI, above: our very own digital arts/humanities/social science Hogwarts! (Image courtesy of Bennetts Associates).

Of course, having been at UCL for over 14 years previously, I’m missing colleagues, friends, and Bloomsbury, but I’m keeping up research projects and links, whilst forging new opportunities north of the border, and beyond. I’m delighted that both UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and UCL Department of Information Studies have made me Honorary Professor. I also know that I leave UCLDH – which I co-founded and directed for many years – in good hands, with Simon Mahony now as UCLDH Director. I have every faith that it will continue to flourish, and am promised a cuppa and a cupcake – as is the UCLDH tradition! – when I’m passing through.

Edinburgh is great so far. As well as the challenges of a new job, and meeting hosts of new colleagues, and the bubbling away of new research ideas and approaches, I’m enjoying the change of scene, and getting my head around a new institution. In the three months I’ve been at Edinburgh I’ve almost stopped counting how many weeks I’ve been in the place, and saying “at UCL we did it like this…” (I had to edit the opening line to “semester” rather than “term” and that’s just the start of the mental remodelling involved). I’m now living near family, I walk to work, I live in a Victorian mansion, and my children are happy, in great schools. I no longer have a punishing commute (you don’t think most people who work in London can afford to live in London do you?). I’ve a new, glorious, European city to explore, which feels like home already, returning to Scottish culture and society (although I grew up relatively near here, I didn’t know Edinburgh that well at all before we moved). I’m aware I’m living the academic dream, which is a lovely feeling to have: I’m both aware of and appreciating my privilege. This is home now. This.

And, as usual, I have much work to do!

An embarrassment of Lectures – Videos, Slides, & Transcripts of my recent keynotes

Between the start of October the end of November 2016 I was asked to do a variety of keynotes and guest talks. I’m cutting down on travel at the moment, especially during teaching terms, but things in London are fair game… although imagine my surprise to find out I had managed to book myself in to talk at five big events in around as many weeks, at the start of the academic year! Gulp. Videos, transcripts, reports, and audio of these have trickled in, so I thought I would collect it all in one handy blogpost for your perusing pleasure.

First up was the Linnean Society Annual Conference on 10th October, which this year had the theme “What Should Be in Your Digital Toolbox” and my talk “If you teach a computer to READ: Transcribe Bentham, Transkribus, and Handwriting Technology Recognition.” For the past six years, the Transcribe Bentham project has been generating high quality crowdsourced transcripts of the writings of the philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), held at University College London, and latterly, the British Library. Now with nearly 6 million words transcribed by volunteers, little did we know at the outset that this project would provide an ideal, quality controlled dataset to provide “ground truth” for the development of Handwriting Technology Recognition. This talk demonstrated how our research on the EU framework 7 Transcriptorium, and now H2020 READ projects is working towards a service to improve the searching and analysis of digitised manuscript collections across Europe.

Presentations from other speakers are online too, and they are well worth a peek.

Next up was the Jisc Historical TextsUK Medical Heritage Live Lab” which I hosted at the Wellcome Library on 26th October. The UK Medical Heritage Library makes newly available 68,000 19th century texts relating to the history of medicine, with more than 20 million pages of books digitised and put freely online. The lab brought together  students and researchers from various disciplines to explore and develop ideas around the use of the rich text and image assets which the collection provides. It was also a chance for researchers to work with Jisc developers, experimenting with the affordances of the interface, working together to understand user needs and desires. It was a great day, and I reported on the findings at the UK Medical Heritage Library symposium, which launched the online resource at the Wellcome Library, on the 27th October, in possibly the fastest turnaround of “do some Digital Humanities user based work and report on it to an audience” for me, ever. The slides covering the result of this hackday are up on slideshare, – no video, but I commented so you should be able to get the gist.

Next up was the British Library Lab’s Annual Symposium on November 7th. My talk was called ‘’Unexpected repurposing: the British Library’s Digital Collections and UCL teaching, research and infrastructure”. I highlighted how we have been using the British Library’s digitised book collection – 60,000 volumes which are now in the public domain – to explore processing of large scale digitised collections, both with researchers and computing science students at UCL. I’m told a video is coming really soon, but in the meantime, the slides are up over at slideshare, and there is also a wonderful “Lecture Report” (PDF) available on this by Conrad Taylor (thanks!) who also recorded the audio of the talk which you can hear here:

Finally, on 16th November I gave the QMUL Annual Digital Humanities Lecture, which I titled “Beyond Digitisation: Reimagining the Image in Digital Humanities”. The digitisation of primary source material is often held up as a means to open up collections, democratising their contents whilst improving access. Yet Digital Humanities has made little use of digitised image collections, beyond wishing to get access to individual items, or the text that can be generated via Optical Character Recognition or transcription of primary sources. Why is this, and what opportunities lie for image processing and computer graphics in the field of Digital Humanities? What barriers are in place that stop scholars being able to utilise and analyse images using advanced processing? Given the importance to text for Digital Humanities, how can we begin to reconceptualise what we can do with large bodies of digital images? I showcased work from projects as diverse as the Great Parchment Book, Transcribe Bentham, and the Deep Imaging Mummy Cases projects, demonstrating how those in the Digital Humanities can contribute to advanced cultural heritage imaging research. No video as yet, but I’m told its coming and I will add it here when it does. Here’s a picture of me in full flow: it is dark, as we turned the lights down to concentrate on the images.

Melissa Terras talking

I enjoy public speaking, and these events were all great – I learn so much from discussing different topics with the varied audience. However, this was quite a lot in October/ November, on top of the start of the academic year, my normal teaching load, marking all last year’s MA and MSc dissertations, PhD supervision, a PhD examination, and preparing for exam boards! I made it difficult for myself in talking on different topics, some of which I had to write speeches from scratch on, too.  It is probably enough public speaking for a few months (and also another reason why I’m going quiet this term – I’m now in a phase of writing, which you can’t do when giving bi-weekly keynotes. Its just a different phase of academic life – these talks and the feedback from them will emerge later in my writing).

And why “An embarrassment”? Well, you don’t think I ever watch videos of me speaking, do you?????

Going on Sabbatical….

Just a quick note to say – I’m shortly heading off on research sabbatical! returning on May 8th 2017! I have a couple of writing projects to finish up, and a major one to start scoping out. I’ll mostly be in my shed, writing, thinking, typing, and avoiding normal day to day teaching and enabling academic duties.

Moving gif of a writer, with pages flying around.
Writey McWriteface.

I get a lot of email, and I’m consciously deciding that I will not be able to reply to all emails sent to me during my absence. We only get one term (approximately 4 month) sabbaticals in my faculty at UCL, and those only come around once every three or four years, so I’m going quiet on responding to what other people want me to do. In addition, my schedule is now fully booked until September 2017 for plenary lectures, guest talks, refereeing, and peer reviewing grant proposals, research papers, and conference abstracts. I am also not available to write references, unless previously agreed. If you have emailed me, or are thinking of emailing me, to ask me to do any of these tasks for you, I thank you for your kind invitation, but I am not accepting any further external enabling duties until September 2017 at the earliest.

I should imagine I’ll be on the Twitter from time to time a lot, but this sabbatical will be a much-needed respite from email and managerial duties (and a hefty and increasingly unpleasant commute), and a space to think, to hatch plans, and to write. Please forgive me if you ask something of me before May 2017, and I am unable to respond. My job, during the next few months, is to concentrate solely on my own research, and I wish you well in yours, too.

For Ada Lovelace Day: Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody and fictional equalities

For the past few years I’ve been working on a jolly-turned-serious side project, the representations of Academia in illustrated children’s fiction. I’ve written before on the fact that most fictional academics in picture books are male, mad and muddleheaded, but for Ada Lovelace Day 2016, the international celebration day of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths, I want to introduce the first female academic I have found so far in a text marketed towards children. For those who haven’t come across her before, please welcome the marvellous Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody, from the Dan Dare comic strip in the weekly Eagle magazine, a seminal UK comic launched in 1950 which attracted a huge readership.

Professor Peabody is a wonder. Appearing as regular side-kick to Dan Dare (the Pilot of the Future!) and Space Fleet’s permanent Special Advisor to the Exploration and Research Department from the first volume of Dan Dare, Issue 5, in 1950, she is presented as a fully fledged competent academic with a cast-iron backstory. It is important to note here how few women were working in places of Higher Education at the time of writing – 1950 – although the comic is set in the mid 1980s. The story is that the Earth is running out of food, and Dan Dare and his team are being sent to reconnoitre Venus as a source of food production. Here comes the Professor….

Professor Peabody is presented to the men. The are surprised she is a woman
Professor Peabody’s first appearance in the Eagle comic, as she joins Dan Dare’s team (Vol. 1 No 5 1950). Reproduced with kind permission of the Dan Dare Corporation Limited. All rights reserved.

From her entrance, Professor Peabody is bad-ass. I’m limited in the comic cells I can show you here (given the copyright and permissions aspect), but let me give you some examples. Sir Hubert – the guy on the phone – takes Peabody in his ship to “keep an eye on her” and “make sure she doesn’t get in the way” – refusing to respect her training or qualifications:

Sir Hubert: “Miss Peabody! I insist that you come away from those controls immediately! THATS AN ORDER!”

Professor Peabody: “I’m sorry Sir Hubert, but you’re not as young as you used to be – and we may need steady nerves on this job”. Professor Peabody steals the ship…  (Eagle Vol 1, No. 5, 1950).

Resourceful and confident, she often takes the lead when the men sit around and do very little. When they crash land on Venus, the crew are starving:

Dan Dare: “Right now I’m thinking of a big juicy steak, fried onions and potatoes”. He sits, head in hands.

Digby: “I’d settle for a fish and sixpennyworth with plenty of salt and vinegar!”. He is lying down.

Professor Peabody: Off gathering vegetation… “If you men opened your eyes and stopped dreaming you’d find plenty to eat… Look! fruit and nuts for the taking!” She shows them the bountiful vista.

Dan Dare: “But is it safe to eat?”

Professor Peabody: “Perfectly safe, according to the Peabody Pocket Tester, a little thing I designed when I was picked for the job”. (Eagle Vol 1, No. 26, 1950).

The men all run off and start gorging themselves.

Over and over again she does the math, saving the day, figuring out the twists in the plot, knowing when to use equipment, knowing the science, knowing the best course of action. She does this in the face of extreme refusal to believe that she is capable of doing anything: the team repeatedly call her Miss, or The Girl, and mansplain and manterrupt: “Easy old girl! These chaps know what they are doing!” (Eagle Vol 1, No. 13, 1950). She is treated differently because of her gender: “This is monstrous! in the name of humanity – you can’t sent a girl down a mine!” (Eagle Vol 2, No. 3, 1951). There is routine discrimination and even (remember this is a children’s comic!) a touch of harassment – she is regularly telling men to behave. She is shown to struggle with showing her emotions, crying when they are all told they will be killed by the Mekon “This is no way to behave, Jocelyn Peabody, Professor of Geology, Botany and Agriculture, Space Pilot Class 3 and…. B-But… I- I’m Frightened!”. (Eagle Vol 1, No. 40, 1951) – but her character is all the more well rounded and realistic for doing so. Over the course of their adventures she maintains her leadership position in the team, even eventually winning over even the most misogynist of Space Fleet: Sir Hubert, he on the telephone in the panels above, cries himself when he hears she has been left for dead after an emergency evacuation where she couldn’t possibly have survived… “Hank is absolutely A.1 at Lloyds… and so is the girl. She stood by me on a sinking rocket in the Venus flamebelt, with the silicon mass creeping up on us, and never batted an eyelid! I’d ride a V. 2. Rocket to save that girl, if it was a straight problem of rescuing her, but it isnt…” (he sobs). (Eagle Vol 2, No. 47, 1952). Peabody is, quite frankly, amazing.

Peabody comes out of nowhere. The first female to appear in my corpus of academics in illustrated children’s fiction – a full hundred years after the first man – she is central to the Dan Dare comic strip. The writers of the comic knew how rare she was, and it was a conscious decision to include a woman who was equal to the men in this fictionalised future. Dan Dare’s creator and artist, Frank Hampson, said of Peabody when interviewed in 1974:

I didn’t want to produce a strip without a female. In a way I struck a blow for Women’s Lib! She was shown as a very clever, attractive young lady. It also paved the way for a few arguments between her and [the men] in the first story – a nice human touch… she was just a very normal, efficient, competent girl. (Quoted in Vince 1994, p. 27)

Women in science fiction are rare. In 1975, Leading science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin described the genre’s sexist and hierarchical structure:

From a social point of view most SF has been incredibly regressive and unimaginative. All those Galactic Empires, taken straight from the British Empire of 1880. All those planets – with 80 trillion miles between them – conceived of as warring nation-states, or as colonies to be exploited, or to be nudged by the benevolent Imperium of Earth towards self-development – the White Man’s Burden all over again. The Rotary Club of Alpha Centauri, that’s the size of it… It is a perfect baboon patriarchy, with the Alpha Male on top, being respectfully groomed, from time to time, by his inferiors (LeGuin 1975, p. 209-10).

Peabody was physically modelled on one of the comic artists who drew her – Greta Tomlinson, now Greta Edwards. Intellectually, though, she is based on a complex, full drawn, and impossible (at the time of writing) backstory.

Close up of Professor Peabody's backstory
Professor Peabody’s backstory. (Vol. 1 No 5 1950). Reproduced with kind permission of the Dan Dare Corporation Limited. All rights reserved.

Born in Gloucestershire,  she attended school in Southampton, graduating from Bedford College, University of London, before undertaking her doctorate at Magdalen College, Oxford University. By the time of the first Dan Dare strip, she is the youngest and first female lecturer at Oxford. Now, Bedford College offered higher education for women between 1849 and 1985, becoming part of the University of London and then eventually merging with Royal Holloway, so it is perfectly feasible that Peabody could have studied chemistry there in both the real 1950s and fictional 1980s of the comic strip’s creation and imagination. However, Magdelen College, Oxford did not admit female students until 1979, so at the time of writing (1950) Peabody could not have gone there: the writers challenge barriers and expectations. I checked with the Magdalen College archivist, who told me the first woman at Magdalen to undertake a doctorate there

was probably Kate Lessells, an ornithologist who was also our first female Fellow: she became Magdalen’s first female Fellow by Examination (a postgraduate role equivalent to JRF) in 1979. She got her D.Phil in 1982, having written and defended her thesis on factors affecting family size in Canada geese.

I find this fascinating – a comic written in the 1950s reasonably accurately predicts a timeframe in the future (late 1970s and early 1980s) where women’s engagement and equality of opportunity should be a possibility. (It should be noted, of course, that although Magdalen was the last all-male place at Oxford, many women had rich and successful research careers there since they could become full members of the University in 1920. At both faculty and college levels, there were many notable female researchers at Oxford throughout the 20th Century).

The battles that Peabody regularly faces – backwards in high heels, people –  echo many of the issues we experience as women in academia, or women in science, today. I also find it somewhat disconcerting that a comic character from the 1950s is, on my worst of days, the most accurate portrayal of my working life as a woman in the academy, working with technology, in 2016.

Peabody is a trailblazer. The circulation of the Eagle, at its highest in the 1950s, was around one million copies sold per week (giving an expected readership of double or triple that). The potential influence of her character in showing a brave, skilled, women of intellectual heft, should not be underestimated. However, she is an outlier: I have not found another illustrated female academic in children’s literature who is so fully drawn, so considered, so concretely placed to challenge, again and again, the perception of women’s place in science and technology, representing a hopeful but hard won equality in the academy.

I have to confess I’m a little bit in love with Professor Peabody:  Ada Lovelace Day is the perfect opportunity to introduce others to her, too.


Le Guin, (1975). American SF and the Other. Science Fiction Studies, Vol 2. Part 3, November 1975.

Vince, A. (1994). The Frank Hampson Interview. Cambridge, UK. Astral Publications in association with the Eagle Society. Quoted in Jones, D., and Watkins, T. (2000), A necessary fantasy?: the heroic figure in children’s popular culture, Routledge.

P. S. Let’s save the arguments over whether comics are children’s literature for another day…

From airbrush to filters to AI…The Robots Enter the Photographic Archive

I. Manual Airbrushing

At the end of the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film The Shining (sorry! spoilers!) a photograph is revealed to show Jack Nicholson’s character, Jack Torrance, at the centre of attention at a 1921 party, which, Kubrick later said, suggests Torrance is a reincarnation of an earlier hotel caretaker. The photograph was not a simple staged photo of the extras that appear in the film, instead it was an adapted version of:

a photograph taken in 1921 which we found in a picture library. I originally planned to use extras, but it proved impossible to make them look as good as the people in the photograph. So I very carefully photographed Jack, matching the angle and the lighting of the 1921 photograph, and shooting him from different distances too, so that his face would be larger and smaller on the negative. This allowed the choice of an image size which when enlarged would match the grain structure in the original photograph. The photograph of Jack’s face was then airbrushed in to the main photograph, and I think the result looked perfect. Every face around Jack is an archetype of the period. (Kubrick interviewed by Michel Ciment between 1975 and 1987, transcribed here).

Details of this process are provided in the 1985 “Complete Airbrushing and Photo-Retouching Manual“, which I recently purchased for a penny, there not being much demand for airbrushing these days.

Scan of book page showing retouching in the final photo used in the Shining
Airbrush like a Pro. In: Owen and Sutcliffe (1985) The Complete Airbrushing and Photo-Retouching Manual, North Light Books, p. 102.

Photographs have never been neutral. How they are taken, framed, chosen, discarded and processed informs and literally colours our view of history, but the medium has always been tweaked and retouched to show a different sort of reality, one that we require, or other’s think we may prefer. In the case of the Shining, the manual retouching of a historic photograph provides a twist, an uncanny ambiguity to the whole movie. But since their invention, photographs have routinely been improved, manipulated, and adjusted through a variety of processes to improve their appearance, or change their content. As I said in “Digital Images for the Information Professional” back in 2008:

The defacing or erasing of historical personages, documents, artefacts, and architecture is well attested: if you control the image, you control the ideology, and the information passed on to the viewer… photographic images are very easy to manipulate, raising issues of trust, verification, and ethics when using them for proof, research, or evidence of any kind.

As well as the manual manipulation and retouching of photographs to just make people look better, which became common in the late Victorian era and found its heyday in making Hollywood starlets picture perfect, these photographic manipulation techniques were used to more chilling purposes in the USSR in the 1930s, where

The physical eradication of Stalin’s political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by the obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence. Photographs for publication were retouched and restructured with airbrush and scalpel to make once famous personalities vanish… So much falsification took place… that is it possible to tell the story of the Soviet era through retouched photographs… Faking photographs was probably considered one of the more enjoyable tasks of the art department of publishing houses during those times. It was certainly much subtler than the “slash-and-burn” approach of the censors. For example, with a sharp scalpel, an incision could be made along the leading edge of the image of the person or object adjacent to the one who had to be removed. With the help of some glue, the first could simply be stuck down on top of the second. Likewise, two or more photographs could be cannibalized into one using the same method.  Alternatively an airbrush (an ink-jet gun powered by a cylinder of compressed air) could be used to spray clouds of ink or paint onto the unfortunate victim in the picture. The hazy edges achieved by the spray made the elimination of the subject less noticeable than crude knife-work… Skillful photographic retouching for reproduction depended, like any crafty before the advent of computer technology, on the skill of the person carrying out the task and the time she or he had to complete it. (David King, 1997, The Commissar Vanishes, Henry Holt and Company, New York, pages 9-13).

Airbrushing reigned – for good or ill – in photographic manipulation for nearly 100 years. As our 1985 manual explains

The airbrush has been in existence since 1893. During that time it has been repeatedly been denounced as a novelty, phase, or fad. It is an inarguable truth that today more airbrushes are being sold than ever before, and that owners of airbrushes are producing work in an every-increasing number of different styles. The artists themselves are guaranteeing a tremendous future for the tool, by a natural evolution of images that defy categorization… the outlook has never been more healthy. (Owen and Sutcliffe (1985) The Complete Airbrushing and Photo-Retouching Manual, North Light Books, p. 130).

An artistic manual process that required skill and training: could computers ever compare?

Few commercial activities has escaped the scare-mongering that has accompanied the rise to prominence of the computer: that, sooner, or later, the computer will take over from human ability. Airbrushing is no exception. This nation can be instantly dispelled by the fact that, despite the extraordinary advances in computer technology, no electronic process has yet been developed to fulfill satisfactorily the function of human creativity. Nor is any such development on the horizon. (ibid).

Our manual was published in 1985, and was so popular a second edition was printed in 1988. In September of that year, Adobe Systems Incorporated acquired the distribution rights to a little piece of software called Photoshop, which was released commercially in 1990. Although dedicated high-end computer systems for photo retouching had existed before this point, Photoshop (and other graphic design computer programs) democratized and expanded the use of digital retouching methods. A kick-starter funded film to be released later this year, Graphic Means, will trace this change from manual to computational methods within the design sector: we now live in a world where the manual cutting, splicing, and airbrushing seems a distant history.

II. Photoshop and filters

Fast forward twenty five years. And so everything is now digital, right? Everyone has access to digital photography retouching tools, and even “machine learning” photo changing apps! Digital photographic retouching is now all pervasive, both within the advertising industry (who often get it wrong) and by individuals, who can use a range of apps to correct, adjust, and improve, selfies for sharing on social media environments. Can’t do it yourself? The skill set is now so common, you can have someone on Fiverr retouch your photographs for you for minimal cost (and some people even make social commentary art work out of it). The days of manual tweaking of photographs are over! Except. The tools currently available for photographic adjustment still require levels of skill and expertise to use. The range of filters and tools are dazzling, but they still require a human operator to do the retouching, and to drive the machine, to do bespoke, one-off adjustments (such as would be required in a digital retouching of our Shining pic). Even the fancy filters du jour which are sold as machine learning, such as Prisma, are very blunt tools, and require some level of selection, input, operation, and request from an app user. The filters may be more and more advanced, but they a) have limited, fixed variables b) still require a level of human intervention and b) automated filter processes only tweak the appearance, not the semantic content of the photograph. Zomg! I’ve been Prisma-ed! Machine learning, dontchaknow!

Picture of Melissa Terras filtered via Prisma and made to look like art.
My picture, put through various Prisma filters.

So much, so fun. But exchanging (rather than just filtering) someone’s face in a historic photograph, a la the Shining, still requires someone sitting down and working on making the photographic content look realistic, even though the tools have changed from the manual, to the digital. Surely, this will always be the case, right? Despite the extraordinary advances in computer technology, no electronic process has yet been developed to fulfill satisfactorily the function of human creativity. Nor is any such development on the horizon. I seem to have heard that somewhere before…

III. Enter the Robots

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to attend a symposium at the Royal Society’s country estate, the topic of which was Imaging in Graphics, Vision and Beyond. The aim of the seminar was to bring together researchers in disciplines spanning computer graphics, computer vision, cultural heritage, remote sensing and bio-photonics to discuss interdisciplinary approaches and scope out new research areas. I was there along with UCL’s Tim Weyrich given our work on the Great Parchment Book. It was a great two days, and not just for the academic craic (my room was THE OLD LIBRARY! it was glorious).

The paper that made me sit up most and go… here come the awesome robots… was from Dr Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering who co-leads the UW Graphics and Imaging Laboratory at the University of Washington. Ira demonstrated a personalised image search engine designed to show you different potential views of people. Give it an input of a picture of a face, and a text query to find photos, and it outputs results of pictures that automatically include the person submitted embedded into the photographs. Let me give you an example (Ira has given me permission to share these). First she takes the input picture:

Headshot of Dr Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman
Headshot of Dr Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, the lead on the Dreambit system.

The search term used is “1930s”, and bingo: Ira as film star, seamlessly integrated automatically into the historical photographic record.

Dr Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman appears seamlessly integrated into the past… its one way to time travel!

The new system, called Dreambit, analyzes the input photo and searches for a subset of photographs available online that match it for shape, pose, and expression, automatically synthesizing them based on their team’s previous work on facial processing and three-dimensional reconstruction, modeling people from massive unconstrained photo collections. You can keep your Prisma: here is machine learning at its cutting edge best. More details about how the system works are available from the recent SIGGRAPH 2016 paper where it was launched (hefty 45MB download), and you can sign up for Free Beta Access for when Dreambit is launched, hopefully later in the year, here.

The potential market applications for this are huge (it has been described as a system for trying out different hair styles, but one can also imagine using this for creating bespoke gifts, especially greetings cards: who needs a generic sepia historical humour card when you can slot a pic of a you and a loved one into the picture, for larks?). But what interests me is what this means for institutions and collections creating digitised historical photographic archives, and where, conceptually, this is taking us in understanding how historic photographs can be used, reused, and re-appropriated in the digital realm. You would not have to go to a picture library now and manually tweak and burn and dodge a physical print of a photograph to include it in a film: we’ll soon be able to have computer systems available to do that seamlessly for us.

IV. We need to talk about What This Means for Digitisation of the Photographic Record

I’m not sure I’ve really conceptualised what this means for historic photographic archives in the online era yet. There are clearly copyright and licensing issues at play, which is ever a concern in the library and archive community, but beyond that: what does this mean for those in the sector? We’ve barely got out head around how historic photographs lose their metadata or any sense of accreditation or even factual accuracy when they go off into the internet wilds on their own, or how historical photograph content can be monetised in ways institutions never envisaged, never mind what happens when the content starts getting tweaked and rewritten, automatically, swiftly, robotically, changing its very content as well as its context. Are we ready for the robots entering the digitisation landscape? What fun can we have with this – as well as what worries does it bring? (I can imagine various public engagement apps, where Dreambit is applied to particular photographic collections: is this best done with an institution’s permission, or will it happen anyway in the internet wilds, if collections don’t play along?) There are also ethical issues at play about the reuse and appropriation of historical and cultural content: what can we do to educate both other researchers and the general public about the ramifications of these technologies, as applied to the historical photographic record?

We’ve come a long way from the physical photographic processes needed to put someone else into the picture. Now we need to think about how we can use this emergent technology to work alongside and with our digitised content, to retain any kind of control over institutional digital collections. I’ll be really interested in what discussions this provokes – and what the worries, and benefits of the technology, can be viewed to be. It would be wise to start thinking of how we can use collections in this content-changing world, rather than build false barriers to access that we may not be able to maintain.

I find Dreambit’s potential amazing. I’ve asked Ira if she could put my picture into the one used at the end of the Shining. I’m sure it will now only take the click of a button.

Update: 22nd August 2016: Ira put me in the picture…

Pictures of a woman inserted into different tiara pictures
The many tiaras of Professor Terras.
Me, victorianised. OR WAS I ACTUALLY THERE, HMMMM??????

A Few Words for Professor Lisa Jardine

lisajIn October 2015 UCL and the wider scholarly community lost Professor Lisa Jardine CBE FRS. I was lucky, during her time at UCL, to get to know her both as a colleague, mentor, and friend. My blog has been sitting here waiting for me to write a few words on Lisa, although there are so many excellent obituaries and memorial columns out there: try the Guardian piece, or Kate Maltby’s tribute, to get a flavour of both Lisa’s achievements, and her character. There’s also the 10 minute segment on BBC Radio 4’s The Final Word (which I was honoured to be ask to contribute to) which sums up Lisa in her own words, and those of others.

Yesterday (19th January 2016) we held a memorial at Senate House in London for Lisa. I had two jobs there – since she became ill earlier in the Autumn I’ve been Acting Interim Director for Lisa’s Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, a role Lisa had asked me to take on to help her team over this period as we plan for their future. 350 attendees came to what turned out to be a joyous celebration of her academic life and work, hosted jointly by UCL, the University of London, and Queen Mary.  I have to thank the CELL team for their work in organising such a large event at relatively short notice.

I was asked to give the tribute from Lisa’s time at UCL – and had only five minutes to do so (eek). There were other speakers from UoL, QM, etc, and the event was filmed and will be made available online at a future date once the recordings are processed. But I wanted to share with you here – at last! – my few words about Lisa Jardine.

It’s an honour to be asked to say a few words about Lisa Jardine: unlike many of you, I only got to know Lisa over the last three years, during her time at UCL. In the summer of 2012 I went on holiday – and came back to the news: Lisa Jardine was here! Her reputation, of course, preceded her: both the prodigious scholarly output, and her fearless personality.

I first encountered that personality within UCL’s various managerial committees. In those, she played academia for the sport it is –with great glee, but seriously: navigating university structures to get exactly what she wanted, even if she had to strategically burn bridges to do so. Lisa knew she was the real deal, providing a different type of role model for many of us: a woman at the top of the academic game.

The Lisa I got to know was not resting on past glories: she had work to do at UCL, and every conversation we had was about the future: The Big Books, The Big Grants, she would call it. Amidst the routine tussles of academia, Lisa impressed upon me again and again that what really mattered was the Big Work: and the quality of the words that you chose to put out there. Let me summarise a few things, in particular, that stand out for me during Lisa’s time at UCL.

Archives were Lisa’s bailiwick, but she intuitively understood computational technologies, and the potentials in digital humanities techniques for her area and era of study. We see this in the highly prestigious Mellon-funded “Archaeology of Reading” project that she established at UCL (with John Hopkins and Princeton): the Big Grant if you will, using innovative digital tools to analyse personal annotations in early printed books. This was the fruition of years of Lisa’s research at the juncture of the digital and the archival, advancing both early modern scholarship on the history of reading practices, and sharing both data and technological methods to allow others to also do so.

We also see Lisa’s commitment to recent, online developments in the dissemination of scholarship: she realised the power of publishing her research in open access, to reach as wide an audience as possible. Lisa was delighted to have what was to be her last book, Temptation in the Archives, be the first publication from the recently rebooted UCL Press: freely available online, as well as purchasable in print. She told me that UCL had given her a home, and what could she give them in return? Her words.

We see Lisa’s playful nature in her approach to social media: she loved Twitter, with its debate and badinage. That’s how me met, properly. We bantered on Twitter: she turned up at my office door, and announced she was going to be my mentor. That, too, I learnt, was typical Lisa behaviour.

Which brings me to Lisa, and her collection of people. Alongside all her printed and broadcast and silicon words, Lisa knew the power of regular chinwags, the benefits of a cupcake and a good glass of wine. Lisa’s Centre for Editing Lives and Letters – the “CELL Extended Family” she always called it – was an extension of family to her, and she found the time to identify and foster a whole motley physical network of us who she saw something in, something she could support, and encourage to “behave badly”, to achieve.

I have to pause here and thank core members of the CELL Extended Family: Dr Matthew Symonds for his compering, Dr Robyn Adams, who was Lisa’s right hand woman for over 15 years, being at CELL since its inception, and Lucy Stagg, the CELL coordinator, for their organisation of this memorial service. Given their incredibly close relationship with Lisa, it’s understandable why you have me speaking here about her time at UCL instead of them.

The CELL events were a joy: the weekly Director’s seminars were a hubbub of energy, debate, and team bonding: discussions of shoes, what was on at the London theatre, and commonly used abbreviations in 16th century diaries. What is a text, anyway? Discuss. I had a standing invitation to attend the seminars – I wish now I had gone to more. Once a year Lisa threw the CELL Gala Party, drawing together colleagues and friends for an evening of debate and victuals. I missed the last Gala event: I had another scholarly commitment. “Oh don’t worry” said Lisa. “There will be other parties. There will always be other parties!” And here we are today.

Yes, the Lisa I knew was always planning ahead, and even when what she called the “great unmentionable” was upon her, she was still looking towards the future: The Big Book, The Big Grant, making sure the CELL Extended Family would be looked after. The last time I heard from Lisa, it was only two weeks before she passed. For a woman so full of so many types of words, it had all gone understandably quiet, and we all waited for news. She sent me a text. One word. It simply said: “Hurray!”  Hurray. And that meant a lot of things, concluding a conversation we had kept up for three years – but it summed up, right ‘til the end, Lisa’s bright spirit, her humour, her spark, her willpower, and her joy in being absolutely herself when faced with expectations of how one should behave. UCL is incredibly proud to have had Professor Lisa Jardine with us, and I’m lucky to have got to know her reasonably well in her time here. I was asked to say a few words about Lisa, but I leave you with only one, both in sadness, and in celebration. Lisa Jardine: Hurray!

On Editors, On Writing about the Making and Using of Open Digitised Cultural Content

I want to get back in the habit of blogging about my research articles as they come out, to cover the back story of how they came into being. First up? Opening Access to Collections: the Making and Using of Open Digitised Cultural Content.

In the Autumn of 2014, I was approached by Gary Gorman, a leading, very well published professor in Library and Information Studies, who was putting together a special issue of Online Information Review for open access week 2015, dealing with all kinds of issues in the open access debate. It was at this point I had a total fan girl moment – there are a lot of people in academia who write books and research papers, but very few natural writers, and I’ve been a huge fan of Gary’s published work on information science for years, particularly Qualitative Research for the Information Professional which we routinely recommend to MA and PhD students, not only for what he says, but for the way he says it. However, I’d never had the chance to meet or talk to him in person.  Gary asked if I would consider writing a piece for his journal special issue, and we kicked around a few ideas regarding the research I’ve been doing on digitisation of library and museum and archive content, and licensing, and copyright, and how that sits with the open access agenda. Of course! I said, I’d be happy to write this up! How wonderful to be in a special issue edited by you!!! Did I say fan-girl?

I knew exactly what I was going to say, and it would only take me a few days to say it, I thought. And then it fell to the second or third place in the to do list, and I said, oh well…  – I have aaaaages to put this together…

Spring comes around, and Gary checks in to get the paper. Which I hadn’t written, as I hadn’t taken note of the deadline. I had been so lax and unprepared, and he was so kind, and gracious, and generous, (and funny!), and we sketched out a revised plan given my travel schedule and the turnaround needed for the special issue. Time was tight, and although I knew what I wanted to say, I had to wait til I had a few days free to write it. I sent the piece to Gary at the close of play on a Friday: he had lined up peer reviewers ready to go, so I had full peer review comments plus his editorial remarks back by the Monday, and I did corrections and it went into press by the Wednesday, with proof reader questions and final proofs by the end of that week. Fastest turnaround from writing to peer review to publishing I’ve ever experienced – and all because Gary was helpful and understanding and really very generous regarding the fact I had totally ignored the original timetable, and he wanted to have a piece from me considered for inclusion in this special issue. At this point, I had even more of a fan-girl moment. His editorial guidance (plus the super- helpful, super-speedy peer review comments) made this a piece I’m really proud of. It’s also timely, given it wasn’t actually written just a few months ago…!

The whole special issue of Online Information Review is available now, up in open access for a short spell (I had presumed it would be open access forever given it was a special issue on open access. Turns out you should never presume things will be open access forever: grab the contents before they turn the paywall on!!!!) but my paper is available for free from now on, up in UCL Discovery:

Opening Access to Collections: the Making and Using of Open Digitised Cultural Content (PDF), Online Information Review, Vol. 39 Iss: 5, pp.733 – 752

And then, sadness. Just as the issue goes up for Open Access Week 2015, we get an email from the press, to say that Gary had passed away. There is a lovely eulogy from a colleague who knew him well over at the IFLA Asia and Oceania group which he was very involved in,  and my thoughts go to his family. I didn’t get to know him well, but I’m glad I got the chance to work with him this once, and I’m appreciative of the time he took to get a piece from me, and to keep me included when I had been less than the perfect contributor. For the story behind the scenes of academic publishing is often about people: people with patience, people with persuading skills, people who forgive and cajole and support to get something not only to the finishing line,  but to the finishing line in good shape. Our working relationships in this are often “only” over email, but they become relationships nevertheless. Without Gary’s people skills, this special issue would never have come together, and I certainly would not have been included, and I’m thankful for Gary’s advice and humour, and grateful I got to know him even a little, while remaining in awe at both the quality and volume of his writings over his career, and the evident care he took while aiming to get the best out of others.

Facebook has decided it is time I had a baby


Facebook has decided it is time I had a baby. Suddenly and weirdly all promoted ads have flipped: IVF, counselling, pure conception vitamins, support groups, clinics, eggs, and surrogates.

Facebook has decided it is time I had a baby. It knows my profession, my location, my age. It knows I haven’t had a child in what you would call recently, and presumes there is profit if I have “left it late”.

Facebook has decided it is time I had a baby. As if the choice is easy, and only its to make. As if there are inherent flaws in Lady Decision Trees, as if my own algorithms are inadequate.

Facebook has decided it is time I had a baby, but I cannot share the gore of birth or beauty of breastfeeding: the database’s spaces are controlled by (male?) programmers who patrol the view of motherhood that others should be seeing.

Facebook has decided it is time I had a baby. I’ve had friends delete their profiles with the endless repeat of thoughtless, callous nudges – as if they had forgotten! – after years of expectations, disappointments, and defeat.

Facebook has decided it is time I had a baby. And I’m lucky – I’m so lucky! – I can swipe this one away: the antisocial questions amplified by social media, the casual public prodding of presumed anxiety.

Facebook has decided it is time I had a baby. Eventually I train it to show “less things like that”. It shows -instead of ads for babies- ads for hysterectomies and just goes back to normal: telling me I’m fat.

Just a selection of ads thrown at me over a few days:babyadverts

And don’t get me started on these incubator chasers:


Why I do not trust Frontiers journals, especially not @FrontDigitalHum

In which a favour for a colleague leads to being associated with un-scholarly peer review practices, un-collegiate behaviour, and predatory open access publishing mechanisms. My advice? Stay away from Frontiers.

1. Poor Peer Review Practices

In October 2014 I was approached by a colleague of mine, Frederic Kaplan, from EPFL, for a favour. I had worked with Frederic on running DH2014, still the largest ever international meeting of Digital Humanities scholars. Frederic was setting up a new, online, open access, peer reviewed journal in Digital Humanities. Would I help him out in being a reviewer? Of course, I said. Our community needs more venues to publish in, Digital Humanities has a commitment to open access, and having helped set up an online, peer reviewed, open access, Digital Humanities journal myself, I know how difficult it is to get any established scholars to support you in the early days. I was happy to help: I do try to be helpful. But now I have to be helpful to the wider online community to discuss what happens when you lend your name to a Frontiers publication.

I dealt with the Frontiers editorial team, not Frederic, for the new journal: Frontiers in Digital Humanities. I was surprised when they sent me the journal article to review – given it was written by Frederic alone. I probably should have said “conflict of interest” there, but the Digital Humanities community is so small, we often are asked to review things by people we know, and I think I can take an objective stance, so I undertook a careful review. On the 12th November 2014 I returned the article with my detailed peer review (which I would be happy to share if anyone is interested – it is very constructive). I believe I rejected the article, stating that it needed a complete rewrite before resubmission, and provided guidance in order for that to happen, including the need for adequate referencing and examples, and pointing out where I just plain disagreed with the paper. In March 2015 the resubmitted paper was returned to me, and I pointed out a whole list of minor typographical corrections which still needed to be made before it could be accepted, but agreed that the “Journal Coordinator” Yaelle Bochatay could check these typos before publication.

I remember feeling they had me over a barrel at that point, given they kept asking if the changes had been made – I had asked for certain corrections to be made, they were now made, which should now make it publishable, right? See how this is a professional development opportunity I wasn’t expecting: in retrospect, I now realise that if I’ve rejected a paper for complete rewrite, it should really go to others for peer review afterwards to get another opinion, but I didn’t make that stance at the time and felt pressurised by Frontiers in DH with their many emails. I agreed that the changes I had asked for had been made, and up my name goes on the website saying I’ve reviewed the article, which technically, I did.

Screenshot from Frontiers in DH showing Melissa Terras as a reviewer
A screenshot from the Frontiers in DH paper http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fdigh.2015.00001/full indicating how the paper was reviewed – except all is not quite what it seems.

There’s a few things to say about this. Firstly, why is it ok to only have one peer reviewer on an article? Now, the history of peer review is complex, and its difficult to know what is enough, but one peer reviewer? One? I had assumed, naively, there would be more than one – I didn’t think to check, given I’ve never been in a peer review situation before where I would be the only reviewer, without that being made explicitly clear to me. Frontiers had not mentioned that I was the only peer reviewer (it was made clear to me that my name was going to be online, and at the time, I was happy with that: I stand by my work). But one? Uh-oh. They werent asking me for a peer review. They were asking me to associate my name with the journal, so they could point to me.

But the other problem is, this isn’t transparent. It doesn’t list the fact that I rejected the paper for full rewrite given its poor quality, nor when it was resubmitted after rewrite. Congratulations, you are now the peer reviewer in a substandard peer review process which isn’t all as it seems, with its claims for transparency and claims for revolutionising publishing – the whole thing seemed like a predatory rush job. I hadn’t been able to check out the journal before getting involved in the peer review process – there was nothing to check out, given there was nothing online, and I had trusted Frederic. I felt duped: the whole thing feels icky. But I was prepared to let the whole thing go, and chalk it up to experience (given I had indeed undertaken the peer review for them, and I did accept that the changes had been made to the journal article making it a much stronger paper than originally submitted), although I was decided I would not review for them ever again. However, that was until the opening scenes of the DH2015 conference…

2. Why are all the Senior Editors in Frontiers in DH male?

Over to DH2015, and the international meeting of Digital Humanities scholars in Sydney, Australia. Sitting in the audience, waiting for the first plenary speaker in the opening ceremony, I open the conference bag, and lo! there’s the launch material for Frontiers in DH. I’ll pass this over to a fantastic tweet by Matthew Lincoln, also sitting in the audience, which summed up the shock a lot of us felt. (Screenshot included here in case the tweet disappears, but seriously, thanks Matthew for sending this tweet out).

Shot of leaflet showing Frederic Kaplan as chief editor, and 9 male senior editors
The Frontiers in Digital Humanities senior editorial board. You dont have to have a penis to be a chief editor for Frontiers in DH, but it helps!

Wait, you dont understand why this is problematic? When 46% of the 500+ attendees to DH2015 audience were women? When DH is has plenty of knowledgeable women around, when four out of the last 5 program chairs of the DH conferences have been women (myself included), when… I could go on and on, but Women In Digital Humanities Are Not Hard To Find, Okay? When there are lots of women around being very helpful, and here, in 2015, we have a new journal launched that can only find men to put in senior positions. Right-oh. Let’s just pause for a minute and congratulate them on that, shall we?

Screenshot from congrats you have an all male panel, featuring frontiers in DH
Congratulations, open access journal Frontiers in Digital Humanities! You have an all male senior editorial board. Featured over at Congratulations you have an all male panel.

So what do I do? First, of course, I take to the twitter (as do others):

Screenshot of tweets asking Frederic to readdress the gender balance
A twitter conversation erupts re Frontiers in DH. There’s much more online if you want to dig, but this just isnt about the twitter argument, so I’ll move on.

Then I email Frederic and ask him to remove my name from the journal, as I can no longer give it my support. And in the break I find him, and talk to him in person. He said “it wasn’t deliberate” – I explain that systemic misogyny rarely is. He asks for my help to sort it out: I explain that I have my own journals to look after, and my own work to do, and he has to own this and he has to sort it out himself. I explain I’m not going to be the mummy that comes in and rescues him: its part of being an adult, an academic leader, to recognise that this is an issue, and that you need to put in the work yourself to remedy things when you mess up. We chat, and he agrees that he understands why I should remove my name from supporting the journal. I stress that when his senior editorial board reaches gender parity, we can revisit this, and I would be happy to support him and his work on this, if he can find women for his senior editorial board. I stress that sexism in academia is an important issue for me, and I have to take a stand against such blatant exclusion of women from the academic commons. He agrees.

And then, in later email conversations, which involve higher and higher members of staff from the Frontiers journal office, he denies I ever rejected his paper with major corrections, and my name does not come down from Frontiers in DH, despite many polite requests from me. He asks me again and again and again to find women for him. But he does nothing to support my escalating requests to remove my name from his journal until the gender balance issue is addressed by him. Nothing.


In case there is any doubt, I no longer support Frontiers in Digital Humanities in protest at the fact that they only have men on their senior editorial board. And Frontiers in Digital Humanities are refusing to take my name off their website. I had trusted Frederic. I had felt that the peer review process was less than satisfactory: but the whole thing feels more than icky now. It feels predatory.

3. Why wont Frontiers remove my name when I ask?

Shall I show you some of the responses I got from the Frontier Journals editorial team? Oh go on let me show you some of them. Explaining why they wont remove my name from Frontiers in Digital Humanities, Frederick Fenter, Executive Editor of Frontiers, said: “To remove it would… cause damage to the author of that article. We look forward to hearing from your lawyers.” Responding to criticism regarding the gender issue of the Frontiers in DH board, Fenter said “Our CEO is a woman, 80% of our editorial office employees are women”. You’ve heard it here first – the lowly editorial assistants are women, the senior editors are men. BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN, I tell you. They maintain I signed an agreement with Frontiers to have my name associated with them forever: I never signed any agreement. I asked them for a copy of the agreement they claim to have: they do not respond. It goes on and on. They will not remove my name.

I get an email from Dr Kamila Markram, CEO & Co-Founder on Frontiers, on the 16th July 2015, trying to persuade me that Frontiers “are of course extremely sensitive about the representation on our external editorial boards” stating:

we work hard to be demographically representative.  We find that women, for whatever reason, are many times less likely to accept an editorial appointment, given comparable career advancement – much to my personal disappointment… because we are sensitive to the gender bias within academia and publishing, we do make an extra effort to seek out and approach women who will become part of the solution, become active editors in our journals and help change the field. I always felt the best way to shift the balance is to be a part of the change by setting a positive example of achievement.

The Digital Humanities journal is only a few months old with only a handful of articles published, but I was excited to launch this journal as it has so much potential to showcase the incredible research the scientists in digital humanities are accomplishing.  A number of women have been approached for positions at all levels from Specialty Chief Editors to Associate Editors to Reviewers, and we are waiting for responses. Already we have a number of female Associate Editors on board including Nadia Bianchi-Berhouze, Jeannette Franziska Frey, and Eleanor Selfridge-Field.  Eleanor was recently chosen as one of our Science Heroes. She was interviewed by our team in June to showcase her amazing work and her pioneering spirit. We have also interviewed female scientists in other fields such as Molecular Bioscientist Annalisa Pastore and have a number of others in the works.  We are hoping that our Science Hero profiles will help inspire others to join the field and inform the general public and media of the great research that is being done.
Everything I’ve been doing at Frontiers to help improve gender equality which might seem tiny to you, but believe me, the awareness is there and so is the effort. I’d be very happy to hearing your ideas on how we can reach the desired gender balance with more of the top female scientists in the world and get them to become active editors.  A fresh and constructive perspective is always most welcome.

She also states

 Frontiers is all about fixing the many problems in scientific publishing.  We have improved peer review by making it impact-neutral, collaborative and transparent.

I respond by asking many questions:

1). Please can you tell me why you think having one peer reviewer per article is adequate?
2). Please can you tell me if Frederic Kaplan (or any other senior editor) is paid a fee for editing one of your journals?
3). Please can you tell me why you don’t state if an article has been rejected and requires full revision, given your publishing model is supposed to be more transparent?
4). Please can you tell me why you wont respect an academic’s wishes in having their association removed from your journals, and website, when they make that polite request?
5). Please can you tell me what checks on make up of an editorial board regarding gender (and racial diversity) you make prior to launching a new journal? Who in the Frontiers family checks off a new journal, and double checks that any concerns about gender equality and diversity have been adequately addressed?

And I make constructive points:

Do you realise that only appointing men to senior editorial positions (which is categorically what you have done with Frontiers in DH), and women to more junior positions (I hear 80% of your copy-editors are women! well done!) represents the inherently sexist models in the publishing industry? You, personally, allowed this to happen.

If I were you, I’d be refusing to launch new journals in any field unless there were at least 30% female senior editors already appointed. (50% in an ideal world, but lets go for realistic). I would be setting up a checking stage for gender equality before launch, and rigorously policing it. (There are other issues regarding diversity, such as race and disability, which you should also be looking out for, btw – but gender is the one I feel I can most constructively tackle).

I’d also be having Frederic apologise to me, and removing my name and institutional association from any Frontiers in DH web pages, immediately. As I stated to him in person, I’d be happy to revisit this when you have actioned gender parity, but not before. As it stands, you are trading on my name and my institution’s name, when I have politely, and publicly removed support for your publication in protest for the problematic gender representation on the board of Frontiers in DH.

I’d then be finding the women in DH who are so visible, and often excluded: excluded because men like Frederic can’t or don’t look past their own old boys’ networks, and excluded from journal boards – even by companies run by a woman – because those companies don’t actively encourage or check that there is gender equality in a way which is constructive and practical (refusal to launch a journal if there is not apposite gender representation) rather than fluffy and patronising (Science Heroes! Bless, how lovely).

The CEO does not respond. I leave these emails to speak for themselves.

4. Advice for others considering publishing in Frontiers in Digital Humanities

I dont mean this to come across as an attack on one particular person. I’m frustrated – sure I’m frustrated – but I think, really, this is about the Frontiers model of publishing. Frederic hasn’t said to me himself, but I’m presuming his silence means that he has tried to have dialogue with Frontiers – but it is them who are stopping my name coming off the website, given all emails refusing my request are coming from them (although, Hi Frederic! let me know if that is the case! Really would be lovely to hear from you!) In case you think this is a hatchet job, I’ve been telling Frederic and the journal editors for two weeks now that I intend to talk about it publicly if we cannot get it sorted out: they have had every opportunity to act in a collegiate manner, but I dont believe they have. So let’s now look at the Frontiers mode of publishing.

Its expensive to publish with them. This is a profit making venture (which isn’t bad within itself). But there are other open access journals around in Digital Humanities which are more established, that don’t charge these fees, and have the scholarly support of the community (disclaimer: I’m on the editorial board of one, but there are others). One has to wonder why you would publish in Frontiers in Digital Humanities, really, given the costs, never mind the problematic peer review and gender issues. But hey! don’t worry! If you are lucky you can win the cost of publishing a journal article with them! That’s right! you can WIN THE COST OF PUBLISHING AN ARTICLE WITH THEM. If that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing, I don’t know what will.

screenshot of tweet showing competition to win costs of publishing with frontiers in DH
Roll up, roll up, your academic career starts with a raffle.

The full editorial board (not just the senior editorial board) has 496 people on it. Wait. 496 people? (I haven’t done an exact count but it looks to me that the majority of them are men, btw). But at time of writing there are only 3 papers in the journal? Uh-oh. Something isn’t right here. I ask around. A colleague tells me she has had more than 14 emails in the past few months asking her to be listed on the (low level, not the senior) editorial board. That she feels pressured into getting involved. Uh-oh.

I’ve already detailed, above, how the peer review process left me feeling it was inadequate. I wouldn’t publish in this journal, as it stands, as the peer review process is so lax and untrustworthy (and I state that as a peer reviewer!), never mind this additional stuff about refusing to remove someone’s name from a webpage.

A journal called Frontiers in Bioscience is listed over at Beall’s list of Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers [however – paragraph updated 26/07/2015 – a comment left below states that this has nothing to do with the Frontiers family of journals we are talking about here – instead of deleting this sentence I’m keeping it in with an explanation as I think its important that the distinction is made for others looking at Beall’s list: None of the Frontiers journals from Frontiers Media occur, or have ever occurred, on Mr Beall’s list. I’m happy to make the correction here].

Let’s take a look at the criteria for determining predatory publishers which puts journals on Beall’s list, shall we? Its a long list, available in a PDF, but there are things on that list which Frontiers in Digital Humanities is definitely coming up trumphs with (I quote here from Criteria for Determining Predatory Open-Access Publishers, but the highlighting is all my own):

  • The journals have an insufficient number of board members , (e.g., 2 or 3 members), have concocted editorial boards (made up names), name scholars on their editorial board without their knowledge or permission or have board members who are prominent researchers but exempt them from any contributions to the journal except the use of their names and/or photographs.
  • The editorial board engages in gender bias (i.e., exclusion of any female members).
  • The publisher begins operations with a large fleet of journals, often using a common template to quickly create each journal’s home page.
  • The publisher engages in excessive use of spam email to solicit manuscripts or editorial board memberships.
  • Evidence exists showing that the publisher does not really conduct a bona fide peer review.

etc etc etc. Uh-oh.

All this to say: I wouldn’t like anyone to think that just because my name is on the Frontiers in Digital Humanities website that I support this effort or this publishing house. I did undertake a peer review for them once, in good faith. I have asked for my name to be removed in protest for gender balance issues in their senior editorial board appointments,  but “To remove it would… cause damage to the author of that article”. As a result I’m left recommending that others in Digital Humanities do not go anywhere near Frontiers in Digital Humanities, to prevent any damage to themselves, or their own scholarly reputation.

But then again, I’m always happy to be transparent when it comes to academic publishing.

Update: 28th July 2015

A week has gone by since my original post, and I haven’t had any official contact from Frontiers. I’ve been contacted by many in the Digital Humanities who confirm the spamming emails they’ve had from Frontiers, and many of you have turned Secret Squirrel, sharing what you know.

Turns out I’m not the first to draw attention to the problematic peer review and publishing model of Frontiers. You can read into other such public postings, especially this post from @deevybee on “My collapse of confidence in Frontiers journals”, posted just a few weeks ago. Professor Bishop covers more about the history of the platform and other recent public statements made by academics over how they view it – it’s worth a read, so I won’t cover this ground again here, but it shows that this isn’t just a paranoid rant from me: those considering publishing in this venue should be very careful.

Regarding their publishing model – I was right in surmising that “Frontiers awards annual honoraria to chief editors at threshold levels of success of their journals” … what would success look like? Well, it turns out there’s a set of public facing guidelines for Speciality Chief Editors, hilariously titled “Equal Opportunity Research Publishing” (given the fact that Equal Ops regarding gender doesn’t come into the equation). It’s clearly a franchise model, fair enough. Now, these guidelines makes for very interesting reading, and there are numerous stages where Frontiers in DH didn’t follow the rules – only one peer review, instead of two (despite the hundreds of editors!), the peer review wasn’t blind – Frederic specifically asked for me to review his paper. I didn’t undertake the review as part of the interactive system – it was all done over email, etc etc. So here we have a franchise that just didn’t follow the rules, which is probably the source of my ill-feeling about the Frontiers in DH peer review process. I therefore suggest that anyone considering publishing with Frontiers or being asked to join the review board looks at these guidelines, and people should double check that they are happy with this approach, and that when they are involved, the rules are followed.

I will repeat my call regarding gender and the make up of editorial boards: these Equal Opportunity Research Publishing guidelines should have some consideration for the constituency of the boards, including gender representation, and it wouldn’t be hard for them to insert a clause about this on page 9 if they truly were invested in supporting women in academia. Just check that you haven’t excluded women – it would go a long way to making sure that people don’t “forget” about this, given the issues of systemic misogyny within the academy.

I think I’ve said all I have to say, for now, on this – I’m still disappointed in how all this unfolded, but I have work to do. Next time I’m approached to review for a new journal, I’ll be a tonne more skeptical, and, sadly, less trusting. Be careful out there, folks.