1 Digital Scholarly Editing (DSH)

1.1 Textual Criticism

Through the written transmission we communicate our most important and universal ideas in science, religion, politics, literature. A widely read and widely spread text is also a text that has been widely transcribed, but each copy, each transmission entails the risk of altering and distorting it. History also plays an important role in the oblivion or loss of texts. Philology as a discipline was born to ensure the correct transmission of written texts, to preserve, correct or improve them.

The term philology is derived from the Greek phílos (friend) and lógos (word): it means affection and love of words. The role of the philologist is to verify that the transmission of the text is correct: Philology can be defined in origin as the science of text authentication (Martinelli Cesarini, 1984, 11).

The different methods of practising this authentication of the text constitute what is known as textual criticism, a sub-discipline of the philology. The central topic of this introductory course is the edition of texts. It is a humanistic discipline with a long history, which, depending on the period, the scientific tradition, the language adopts different names for the textual object it curates: naukowa edycja krytyczna (pl), Edición crítica (es), Scholarly Edition (en), Historisch-kritische Ausgabe (de).

What is a Scholarly Edition? The scholarly edition’s basic task is to present a reliable text. The critical edition usually contains:

  • A general introduction, either historical or interpretive.

  • Statements concerning the history and composition of the text.

  • Textual apparatus or notes documenting possible witnesses, alterations and variant readings.

Let’s clarify some of the terminology: A witness is the handwritten, printed or digital versions of a textual work: “The witnesses form the evidence for the textual tradition of a given text”1. A reading is “a short piece of text, often a single word or phrase, which typically varies between manuscripts”2 as recorded in one witness.

For example, considering the first verse of a poem in different copies:

  • Reading of witness 1 (W1): To write a sonnet doth Juana press me
  • Reading of witness 2 (W2): To write a poem doth Juana press me
  • Reading of witness 3 (W3): To write a sonnet doth Juana press me

A textual variation occurs when the witnesses have different readings. In the example there is textual variation between W1 and W2 (sonnet | poem) and between W2 and W3 (sonnet | poem), but not between W1 and W3.

Textual transmission can be more complicated than it seems. Sometimes we have a large number of copies, which in turn may have many or few variants. Dante’s Commedia, for example, has more than 600 manuscripts and early prints.

Manuscripts of Dante’s Commedia. Source: Elena Spadini, 2007

In other cases, only a single text has been preserved, not necessarily written or published directly by the author. Any text may also contain errors (typographical, copying errors, etc.) or formal variants (old spelling).

The preparation of a historical text therefore requires attention and critical judgment. How is a scholarly edition done?

“a scholarly edition is one that follows scholarly method and purpose, that is undertaken with professional critical judgment and the fullest possible understanding of the relevant primary materials, and that provides clear documentary evidence of the relations and contexts of those primary materials” (MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions y Young, 2015)

Textual criticism has produced different approaches to study the transmision of text depending on several factors, e.g. types of documents, texts, errors, authorship, classification of the witnesses, etc. In general, for medieval and classical texts preserved in manuscripts is applied the stemmatic method (reconstructing the original text based on different witnesses, which are grouped hierarchically in order to compile a genealogical tree, i.e, a stemma); for modern print materials the copy-text method (autograph manuscript or printed edition closest to the author’s intention); genetic method (series of draft documents that attest the evolution of the a work) usually of contemporary authors; documentary editions (based on a single document, recording as many possible features of the document). (Pierazzo, 2015, 17-21).

1.2 (Scholarly) Digital Editions

A digital edition follows the same requirements of a scholarly edition, but in consideration of the digital paradigm3. Digital scholarly editions are not just scholarly editions in digital media:

“A digitised edition is not a digital edition” (Sahle, 2016)

Reproduction without critical elaboration is not an edition. Just a digital reproduction, a simple facsimile, a digital library is not an edition4. One way to distinguish one from another is to look at the information or functionality they convey: A digital edition can not be printed without a loss of information or functionality5.

When does an edition follow a digital paradigm? We can mark a edition as a digital scholarly edition6 — in addition to the criteria of traditional critical editing — when certain conditions are fulfilled:

  • Follows common standards (e.g., TEI).
  • Uses and documents a data model.
  • Implements an appropriate interface (usability, search…)
  • Includes metadata, indices, license.
  • Ensures longevity (digital preservation) with an appropriate infrastructure.
  • Uses open standards.
  • Facilitates data sampling, reuse, and remix.

All the points mentioned above are editorial decisions that need to be made and put into practice. It is also important to clearly inform, in a distintive manner, of these decisions. In the same way that a tradicional critical edition should contain statements concerning the history and composition of the text, a digital critical edition should contain statements about the digital choices made.

You can find comprehensive guidelines for quality criteria of digital editions in Criteria for Reviewing Scholarly Digital Editions (de | it | es) and in the MLA Guidelines for Editors of Scholarly Editions


Martinelli Cesarini, Lucia (1984): La filologia. Dagli antichi manoscritti ai libri stampati, Editori Reuniti. Roma.
MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions, y John Young (2015): “Considering the Scholarly Edition in the Digital Age: A White Paper of the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Scholarly Editions”, Committee on Scholarly Editions, <https://scholarlyeditions.mla.hcommons.org/cse-white-paper/>.
Pierazzo, Elena (2015): Digital Scholarly Editing: Theories, Models and Methods, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
Sahle, Patrick (2013): Digitale Editionsformen - Teil 2: Befunde, Theorie und Methodik: Zum Umgang mit der Überlieferung unter den Bedingungen des Medienwandels, Schriften des Instituts für Dokumentologie und Editorik, Books on Demand.
Sahle, Patrick (2016): “What is a Scholarly Digital Edition?”, en Matthew James Driscoll y Elena Pierazzo (eds.), Open Book Publishers, pp. 19-40, <https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0095.02>.

  1. sub voce: Witness, Parvum lexicon stemmatologicum.↩︎

  2. sub voce: Reading, Parvum lexicon stemmatologicum.↩︎

  3. “Eine digitale Edition ist dadurch bestimmt, dass sie die allgemeinen Anforderungen an eine wissenschaftliche Edition durch die Berücksichtigung der gegenwärtigen technischen Möglichkeiten und ihrer methodischen Implikationen erfüllt. Sie folgt einem «digitalen Paradigma»”(Sahle, 2013, 2, p. 148).↩︎

  4. “Wiedergabe ohne Erschließung ist keine Edition. Eine bloße Reproduktion, ein einfaches Faksimile, eine digitale Bibliothek ist keine Edition” (Sahle, 2013, 2, p. 141-142).↩︎

  5. “Eine digitale Edition ist dadurch bestimmt, dass sie nicht ohne wesentliche Informations- und Funktionsverluste in eine typografische Form gebracht werden kann – und in diesem Sinne über die druckbare Edition hinausgeht.” (Sahle, 2013, 2, p. 149).↩︎

  6. See (Sahle, 2016) for more clarification on the terminology.↩︎