History and Art History
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Digital Dissertation Guidelines

Traditionally, a text-based narrative dissertation has served as the signature capstone element of the doctoral research degree in history. Developments in digital publication platforms and digital history methods have increasingly made it possible for graduate students to produce a culminating work of historical scholarship that does not take the form of a narrative dissertation. The History and Art History Department at George Mason University welcomes dissertation projects that take a range of digital forms, while upholding the standards of the profession for good scholarly work. (We are guided in this work by the American Historical Association’s “Statement on the Standards of Profession,” < http://www.historians.org/jobs-and-professional-development/statements-and-standards-of-the-profession/statement-on-standards-of-professional-conduct>, with particular attention to the first four elements of the statement.)


Regardless of the medium through which scholarship is communicated, the core elements of historical scholarship—critical engagement with primary and secondary sources, and a clear analytical argument that contributes to our understanding of the past—must be present. Thus, the standards for the quality of scholarship in a digital dissertation should be equal to the standards applied to analogue dissertations. Each work should:


  • make an original contribution to fields of scholarship through substantive analysis;
  • articulate the significance of work;
  • integrate original research adequate to supporting the key argument of the project;
  • engage with historiography for the related fields;
  • justify methodological choices (digital and otherwise);
  • and, present the work in a usable format.


With these points in mind, doctoral candidates should consult with their dissertation advisor and dissertation committee to come to an agreement about an acceptable final form for the dissertation project.

Fully Digital Dissertation Projects

While all dissertations must reflect the shared professional values and standards of historians, digital dissertations do make some specific demands of their creators because of the differences between print media and the range of digital media. Unlike those candidates producing analogue dissertations who may take for granted the format of their end product, candidates producing digital projects must work clearly to demonstrate a reasonable fit of the core technologies employed and formats produced with the investigative question and the scholarly goals of the project. Similarly, the project should demonstrate an effort to create clear navigational elements, well-considered information architecture, and use of typography, color, and layout, so that scholars from a range of methodological backgrounds can easily engage with the work. Interoperability and data migration should also be a consideration when selecting a platform or/data form. Candidates creating digital dissertations should make accessibility a priority by attending to Section 508 guidelines and using commonly accessible formats and encoding schemas. Finally, candidates must consider the long-term sustainability of their work by making an effort to produce work that offers a migration path for the content to the George Mason University Library’s institutional repository. This migration should as much as possible include both data and interface elements.


In addition to these foundational considerations, doctoral candidates producing digital dissertations should be sure that their final products include the following elements:


  1. Framing Introduction

This long form piece offers key framing for the larger digital work. It should provide sufficient background context for users to situate the project in the larger fields of historical scholarship. The piece should clearly articulate the argument of the work and justify the ways that the source materials and methodological approaches combine to support that work. Finally, the work should clearly state the significance for the work in the relevant fields of historical scholarship.


  1. Core Modules/Units

These central elements support the argument of the dissertation much the same way that chapters would in a traditional dissertation. As such, they could offer case studies, thematic facets of argument, or chronological progression. The shape and the number of these units should be developed in consultation with the candidate’s primary advisor and dissertation committee members. The form of these modules will be dependent on the content under examination and the analytical approach of the candidate.


Each module/unit could include:

  • direct access to a repository of primary sources, compiled datasets, or materials with stable URIs:
    • described with adequate metadata to enable citation (using a consistent, standard schema is recommended) and potential reuse
    • accompanied by a clear indication of excerpting and editing of sources
    • demonstrating appropriate attention to copyright and fair use guidelines 
  • application of digital methods. The selection of methods will depend significantly on the kinds of questions being asked, and by the types of evidence being examined. Possible digital methods might include (but are not limited to):
    • data visualizations
    • computational text analysis
    • geospatial analysis
    • social network analysis


Regardless of the digital methods or outputs, each module/unit must include adequate analytical prose to illuminate digital products and to situate the work within the historiography, with full citations of secondary materials (including links to stable URIs where possible).


  1. Bibliography

As with a traditional dissertation project, candidates have an obligation to offer a comprehensive bibliography of all digital and print primary and secondary sources used to produce the project. If students choose not to make research data open and public, they should offer a statement with their bibliography that justifies that choice (i.e. confidentiality issues, copyright and usage agreements, etc.).


  1. Self-Reflexive Discussion of the Project Development Process

This process-oriented piece should offer a full accounting of the technical and analogue work that went into building the digital dissertation. As such, it should include acknowledgement of any outside technical or design assistance that contributed to the work, and should credit/source all substantial elements of the code and software employed to produce the final dissertation (with the recognition that open source materials are designed to be used and adapted).


Hybrid Dissertation Projects

In some cases, candidate may choose to use digital methods but to produce a manuscript as the primary product of their dissertation project. In these cases, students still bear the full burden of clearly articulating their methodological choices and the ways in which those methods contribute to their final conclusions, and not just the presentation of information. Candidates may produce companion digital products to support and supplement their written dissertation. These products must be fully documented as described in element number 4 above. Similarly, these supplemental elements should meet the guidelines for accessibility and preservation discussed above.

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