Comments on Tom Scheinfeldt’s “Invisible College: ThatCamp as Scholarly Society”

On Thursday, the Columbia University Digital Humanities Center and Scholarly Communication Program hosted a talk by Tom Scheinfeldt on “Invisible College: ThatCamp as Scholarly Society.” Tom stressed the sense in which THATCamp offers an alternative model to the large, bureaucratic, costly, and time-consuming activities of major disciplinary societies. THATCamps are usually small (he recommends no more than 50–60 participants for planning your first THATCamp), locally-organized, require little travel by participants, and are relatively cheap in terms of resources (about 100 hours for set-up and a few thousand dollars can fund meals, materials, and even a few graduate student stipends for a weekend). For more on the talk, see @ScholarlyComm‘s live tweets from the event or watch for the forthcoming video at

The title of Tom’s talk raises an interesting question about THATCamp and the growth of digital humanities: are we indeed forming an “invisible college”? The idea dates back to Diana Crane’s 1972 book[1], which drew on Derek J. de Solla Price’s earlier work with citation networks. An invisible college is a small group of scholars in any field who are responsible for the most influential output in that field. This phenomena has been observed throughout the sciences and social sciences and even the humanities (children’s literature[2])—though Crane initially warned that the research structure of the humanities may be very different from that of the sciences. Invisible colleges have also been shown to be roughly the square root of the size of the entire field[3] (e.g., about 14 people will make up the invisible college in a sub-field of 200, the average size of academic subfield[4]).

There are several difficulties in applying the model of invisible college to THATCamp. These can be discussed separately as “framing issues” (what is the field?) and “metrics issues” (how will we measure influence?). It’s worth considering these questions for many reasons, not the least of which is that discovering an invisible college among THATCamp (or even among digital humanists in general) would lend empirical support to the view that digital humanists are indeed at forefront of research in humanities, which has implications for hiring, tenure and promotion, and funding.

1. Framing issues
In order to investigate the presence of an invisible college, we need to define the ground against which to draw this figure. There are two initial possibilities for THATCamp:

  • THATCamp as an invisible college within the digital humanities
  • THATCamp as an invisible college within the humanities

Settling on this question will help define exactly what influence THATCamp/digital humanities is having on what domain. I don’t know what percentage of humanists have participated in THATCamp, but I suspect it’s relatively high, given that there were 1,899 registered users on as of late November[5]—and too many people to make up an invisible college. So the second hypothesis seems more worthy to pursue: THATCamp participants (or some part of them) as an invisible college within the humanities.

There’s also a more nuanced possibility:

  • THATCamp participants from discipline X form an invisible college within discipline X

This approach is decidedly un-inter/trans/multi-disciplinary, which seems to fly in the face of THATCamp and the values of digital humanities. I raise it only because cross-humanities interactions may be comparatively rare (with the exception of THATCamp/digital humanities), so a study of THATCamp as invisible college in the humanities at large may confirm that THATCamp is the first and only invisible college in the humanities, simply because nothing like it has existed before. That’s OK as far as I’m concerned, but it would be nice to demonstrate something more general in keeping with the inter/trans/multi-disciplinary vision of THATCamp.

At any rate, invisible colleges are more than just small, tight-knit networks of scholars—they must also be connected and influential—so with that in mind, we should turn to the question of metrics.

2. Metrics issues
In nearly all studies of invisible colleges to date, influence is understood as journal article citation impact. An invisible college of 10 scholars is prominent in a field of 100 because, say, 80% of all citations in the field go to articles written by those 10 scholars. Studies have also shown that these 10 are usually personally connected and often co-author papers.

These traditional measures of invisible colleges are ill-suited for studying THATCamp/digital humanities for all the obvious reasons: much important work happens outside of journals and publications, and collaboration patterns are much more varied and diffuse than co-authorship. By incorporating measures such as altmetrics (e.g., downloads, mentions, favorites, shares, like) and social connections between humanists[6], we would have a much better chance of identifying any invisible colleges in play.

Digressions and next steps
The research program sketched above assumes that the current notion of invisible colleges (largely developed on science citation studies) can adequately model something like THATCamp/digital humanities. This may be taking things in completely the wrong direction. Still, trends such as maximum group size, attention space, and economies of scholarship seem robust enough across scholarly interaction to warrant further investigation of digital humanities.

So what should we look for? First, we should narrow our target using the square root prediction about size. Restricting our study to the U.S., the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports about 1.7 million postsecondary instructors nationwide in 2010. The current number of humanities faculty almost certainly numbers above 125,000 (from 2006) and is probably around 245,000 (using the stable 14% figure from 2006). That places our target range for an invisible college between 350–500 members, depending on how the humanities are defined.

Second, having identified the relevant metrics for the study, we should begin to investigate the significance of scholarship produced by THATCamp participants and identify patterns of collaboration between them (though co-participation in THATCamp may be sufficient). It would be interesting to know, in addition, how these digital humanists are connected to other, non-digital humanists.

Even if the results of this study do not turn up THATCamp as an invisible college, it would nevertheless show important patterns in scholarship across the humanities, and developing/incorporating metrics other than formal publications would provide a useful intervention for crediting digital humanities work.

  1. Crane, Diana (1972) Invisible Colleges. Diffusion of Knowledge in Scientific Communities. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London. []
  2. Weedman, Judith (1993). On the “isolation” of humanists: A report of an invisible college. Communication Research, 20, 749–776. []
  3. Price, Derek J. De Solla (1971). “Some Remarks on Elitism in Information and the Invisible College Phenomenon in Science.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 22(2), 74–75. []
  4. Dunbar, Robert (1996). Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass. []
  5. []
  6. Sula, Chris Alen (2012). Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science & Technology 38(4) (April/May 2012): 31–35. []


  1. [...] Alex’s recent post on why you should to go THATCamp and Chris Alen Sula’s reflection on a talk given by Tom Schienfeldt on THATCamp as a scholarly society. [...]

  2. [...] Alex’s recent post on why you should to go THATCamp and Chris Alen Sula’s reflection on a talk given by Tom Schienfeldt on THATCamp as a scholarly society. [...]