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Digitizing, sharing the history of science

The History and Philosophy of Science is too rich a resource and too useful to keep it tucked away in professional specialized journals and on private computers in individual offices.  Everybody benefits from understanding the history and nature of science, and doing so can improve science and improve the way we use science for society. 

See other entries in Scientia for elaboration on those points.

How can the History and Philosophy of Science reach a wider audience? And how can it change its practices to be more engaged with the concerns of science and the role of science in society? These are central questions as we move forward and respond to new challenges. What we need as a first step are novel ways to bring together the knowledge and data from many of separate projects into a coordinated, shared framework that allows any one researcher to benefit from the collective efforts of a whole community. 

Just as with biological, astronomical, and other large data driven projects, we can collect and organize historical data and interpretations as a scholarly community.  Historical data includes a range of objects including photographs, videos, archival materials, published scholarly results, reminiscences, and so much more.  This allows the creation of a rich database of research materials for many scholars as well as the general public to use.  

But more than that, working together in a coordinated fashion brings two other advantages.  The first relates to shared standards and practices.  By developing vocabularies, ontologies, and metadata standards (in ways that allow customization as needed), a group can become much more than the sum of the pieces.  Each participant in such a community benefits in multiple ways:

  1. Shared expertise and standards
  2. Efficiencies and inventions developed by individual projects
  3. Resources collected by individual projects and stored in interoperable repositories

Even further still, such a group can develop and share analytical and computational tools that allow more than just identifying, collecting, archiving, and retrieving objects.  Similar to the bioinformatics revolution, computational tools enable the generation of new knowledge in new ways.  We are developing tools for comparing whole text passages to assess changes over time as well as those for marking up functional relationships between objects in reliable ways and storing those as contextualized RDF triples (or quadruples) in a shared repository.

Representing historical events in form of functional relationship triples then allows us to deploy a range of analytical and visualization tools (from graph theory to topic modeling) that add analytical power and an economy of scale to the traditional methods of historical scholarship.

To facilitate this working together, we have established the Digital HPS Consortium with the mission to develop, support, and promote digital HPS projects, including editing, publishing, and scholarly tools to make this possible. Furthermore, the Consortium is committed to open source and open access products, wherever this is possible.  The consortium already includes many of the major digital projects in the History and Philosophy of Science and hopes that others will join as well.

It currently has several working groups devoted to individual aspects of developing digital HPS and has just held the first HPS informatics workshop at the marine Biological Laboratory. This workshop is an intensive course that introduces HPS researchers to computational tools and approaches.

We invite everybody who is interested to join us in our efforts to promote rational, coordinated, and collaborative approaches to digital projects in HPS. Digital HPS will not replace traditional practices in the history and philosophy of science, rather it will complement those and also support a closer integration of HPS with scientific communities and the public at large.

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