Hypotheses: a multilingual platform for academic blogging
This article reproduces the text delivered by Delphine Cavallo, the head of our Scientific information department, at the annual conference of the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie 2015, whose theme was “The digital dynamic: Universities in a multilingual context”.
The aim of this article is to show, based on the experience of an academic blogging platform, how new modes of scholarly communication enable us to approach multilinguism in research from a technical and editorial perspective. To do this, I will draw on the example of Hypotheses, a platform of humanities and social science research blogs (carnets de recherche) established and developed by the Centre for Open Electronic Publishing in Marseille. By considering the different stages involved in managing the multiple languages of the platform’s users – both readers and bloggers – I will show how the infrastructure has chosen to respond to the issues of multilinguism in research.
The objective behind the development of the platform is the promotion of French-language research by inserting it into a multilingual framework, thereby reflecting the actual conditions in which research is produced and communicated. As a new mode of communication within the research community, academic blogging is highly amenable to multilinguism and the circulation of languages, and this is particularly so due to the fluidity of content and the rapidity of publication. As a sphere of direct and immediate communication, blogging offers the researcher more freedom in their choice of language than an article in a journal or a chapter in a book. The researcher can use their blog to reproduce a conference contribution in the language in which it was delivered, dialogue with relevant specialists in their language, and navigate between the language of the sources they are analyzing and the language of their professional practice.
How was this rich linguistic diversity, so inherent in academic practice in the humanities and social sciences, to be handled on what was initially conceived as a French-language platform? The construction of a multilingual platform proceeded in several stages, corresponding to the different degrees to which the linguistic diversity of different types of users (readers, bloggers, academic communities) was managed. Each of these stages reflects a concern to enhance multilinguism in the humanities and social sciences, and in each instance we have attempted to provide both a technical and an editorial response.
1. Hypotheses: a blogging platform for the humanities and social sciences
Established in 2008, Hypotheses is the leading French-language academic blogging platform for the humanities and social sciences. It is part of the larger OpenEdition ecosystem, of which Hypotheses is one of the four pillars, alongside Calenda, Revues.org (a digital journal platform created in 1999) and OpenEdition Books. OpenEdition is developed and run by the Centre for Open Electronic Publishing.
The invention of Hypotheses was a response to the diffusion of the new writing practices of academic blogging among researchers. This form of direct scholarly communication (between the researcher and his or her reader, whether a fellow academic or not), which previously had been scattered across general-purpose blogging platforms, needed to be better structured and showcased. The name chosen for these blogs (carnets de recherche) drew an analogy with anthropologists’ field notebooks, or carnets, and archaeologists’ dig notebooks, thereby situating this type of textual object within a long written tradition and scientific conversation while also renewing the form and scope of this dissemination of research.
From the outset, Hypotheses was conceived as a platform of open access research blogs which would be made available to researchers and research staff free of charge, regardless of the language they used or where they worked. An Academic committee set the eligibility criteria to start a blog on Hypotheses, as well as the wider editorial and academic scope of the platform. An editorial team, based in Marseille, was and remains responsible for applying these application criteria and then setting up the research blogs upon acceptance of their application. The blogs must have a clear focus and be led by a member of the academic community in the broad sense (a researcher, doctoral student, archivist, librarian, etc.). The blogs can be run by an individual or a group; several authors can be hosted on a single research blog, and one of several roles can be attributed to them (administrator, editor, author, etc.). It is therefore technically possible to reproduce the structure of a research team while also leaving individual researchers with the option of creating a blog of their own.
Thanks to the specificities of the blog format (open comments, rapid publication, reverse chronological ordering of posts), combined with the advantages of a platform like Hypotheses, research blogs are not at all out of place within an ecosystem that also comprises journals, books and academic events. Offering authors huge freedom in terms of format, tone, style and subject matter, while also enabling them to enrich their posts with media and web features, the research blog is the ideal complement to standard academic publications. In late 2015 the Hypotheses catalogue boasted over 1,300 blogs and more than 2,000 bloggers.
2. Multilingual browsing, or how to guide the reader to the right content
Readers have flocked to the platform, which receives a million visits each month from all over the world. The platform enjoys broad appeal because access to the blogs and posts is open and free of charge. This is confirmed by the detailed traffic statistics. While most readers come from Francophone countries, many people in Europe (mainly Germany and Spain) and North America also use Hypotheses. Thus readers from all over the world – whether or not they are members of the academic community – can enjoy the content published on Hypotheses.
To improve the browsing experience of these readers, for whom French is not necessarily their first or even second language, the first response was naturally to offer the option of browsing in different languages on the homepage of each blog. Various languages are available, including French, English, Spanish, German and Portuguese. This allows readers to get their bearings on the webpage; it is the cornerstone of a user-friendly browsing experience in that it enables readers to work out where they are. The idea, then, is to enable the reader to identify the webpage for what it is: a blog that presents the advances or results of research, regardless of the language in which it is communicated.
While this system translates the main elements needed to browse the blog, it obviously does not offer a translation of the content itself: it is up to the bloggers themselves to ensure that the content is presented in a multiplicity of languages, and the work of the platform consists in encouraging and showcasing this multiplicity, while also guiding the reader.
3. Hosting multilingual content on an academic blogging platform
Although developed in France, from the outset Hypotheses has catered for researchers based all over the world. This is primarily because researchers are very mobile and because Hypotheses enables researchers, who move from country to country and change institutional affiliation throughout their career, to maintain a coherent digital identity. Hypotheses also allows a team of researchers scattered across the world to come together to share sources and co-write their advances in a shared online space. But Hypotheses has catered for bloggers the world over from the word go. This is because the platform, which is free to use and based on a technology that natively supports multilinguism and provides user support in several languages (WordPress), is able to host researchers from all countries and in all languages of academic communication while also, for example, ensuring compliance with the coding standards for all types of characters. Every language is welcome on Hypotheses and no technical limitation curbs the platform’s multilinguism. To facilitate access for non-Francophone bloggers, the application form and technical documentation are translated into English at the very least, and it also possible to communicate with members of the Hypotheses team in this language.
The multilingual nature of content on the platform is expressed in various ways in posts and blogs. The first is the coexistence of different languages within a single post, one of which is the language in which the research is published while the others are the languages of the researcher’s sources. A single post may also contain several character sets. The second is when the same text is written in several languages, which produces several different posts. A blogger may also choose to write some of his or her posts in one language and others in a second language, without one necessarily being a translation of the other: in this case, the multilinguism of the blog is a reflection of the different spheres in which the research operates and is communicated. Finally, some bloggers choose to open a blog in each language they use in their work, which allows them to direct readers to the language which is easiest for them to read. The posts on the different blogs may be translations of each other or original texts, depending on the inclination, availability and academic opportunities of the research blogger.
Among the some 1,300 blogs listed in the Hypotheses catalogue as of autumn 2015, the distribution of writing languages is as follows: French (1,033), German (141), English (141), Spanish (36), Portuguese (17), Italian (11), Arabic (4), Turkish (2), Dutch (1), Russian (1) and Chinese (1). It should be noted that these are the languages indicated by the bloggers when they applied to join Hypotheses. We have observed that in their everyday writing practices on their blog, researchers use more languages of expression than they say they do, with a variety of uses in evidence (translation, juxtaposition, linkage), as described above.
4. Showcasing the multilinguism of the blogs on the platform
In terms of the platform itself, the issue is how to showcase the multiplicity of languages represented in the blogs. Like each blog, the platform – that is to say, the level of the site which aggregates and foregrounds posts selected from hundreds of different blogs – offers readers several languages in which they can browse. At the platform level, we felt it was better to display content which has been selected and sorted by language. We therefore decided to establish four “linguistic” platforms, where the showcased posts are all in one language. These platforms display posts in French, English, German and Spanish respectively. The language of the platform is indicated in its URL: fr.hypotheses.org, en.hypotheses.org, etc.
However, to avoid compartmentalizing the languages and in turn the research disseminated, a multilingual platform has also been established under the generic URL hypotheses.org. By automatically aggregating content from the language-specific platforms, it showcases the blog posts that have already been featured in the different linguistic spaces. We also chose to write the overview of the platform and the team in English, thereby giving the platform an international reach. However, it is possible to browse in French, English, German and Portuguese.
In this way, the two systems used to manage the multilingual content on Hypotheses work in tandem: on the one hand, the linguistic platforms aggregate content according to the main language in which it is written; on the other, the multi-language platform reflects the abundance of languages used in blogs on Hypotheses.
5. Building language communities: The corollary of a multilingual platform
Hypotheses is unusual in that most international HSS platforms were typically developed by universities on behalf of their researchers (for example, those developed by Stanford or by Paris-Descartes). Yet Hypotheses has from the outset attracted researchers working in other countries and communicating in languages other than French. In the early days, however, there were only a few such researchers and the impetus was therefore lacking to propel a community or disseminate new practices.
To make the platform truly multilingual and increase the amount of content in languages other than French, it was necessary to develop an active policy towards other linguistic and academic communities. As experience has shown, for a language community to develop on Hypotheses, bloggers must make the platform their own and adapt it to the specificities of their academic environment.
Hypotheses therefore made concerted efforts to internationalize its communities, with a particular focus on German-speaking countries and Spanish-speaking countries. These efforts have shown that in order to be successful, it is essential to have one or several partners on the ground that are prepared to assume the editorial, academic and community management responsibilities which are inherent in the running of the platform. Hypotheses’ German (Max Weber Foundation, Bonn) and Spanish (National Distance Education University, Madrid) partners have hired community managers who are responsible for supporting bloggers in their linguistic community, moderating the bloggers’ discussion list in their respective language and providing on-site training. These teams, with whom we are in daily contact, also select applications from German- or Spanish-speaking bloggers in accordance with the specific criteria developed by their academic boards, which reflect the academic specificities of these communities. They also oversee the structure and functioning of the editorial teams and academic boards of the language portals, ensuring that the way in which each linguistic community operates corresponds to the specific modus operandi of its associated academic spheres. Lastly, these teams are responsible for showcasing content in these two languages by selecting the best posts to feature on their language platforms. The coherence between these different platforms and their academic boards is maintained by the existence of shared discussion lists used by the different teams, regular meetings and the fact that the academic board members move between boards. This enables us to ensure the editorial homogeneity of the different linguistic spaces while also respecting their academic specificities and foregrounding the platform’s multilinguism, which is a genuine asset for Hypotheses.
By ensuring that Hypotheses has been open to all languages of academic expression from the outset, we have sought to respond to a major issue in French-language research – carving out a place for it in the international sphere, thereby increasing its visibility and enabling it to converse with other academic languages. To this end, the technical and editorial choices taken by the team have showcased the multitude of languages on the platform, brought researchers into dialogue regardless of where they are located, and enabled users to appropriate that universal editorial object – the blog. As I have shown, it is not enough to provide a technological solution: to build a genuinely multilingual platform, it is also necessary to guide readers and support bloggers. With a million visits a month from all over the world and eleven languages officially represented, we hope that we are on the right track.