Credit Transparency and the “Collaborator’s Bill of Rights”

Digital projects often not only encourage but require collaboration. And this collaboration is not only between scholars from different areas of expertise but often involves graduate students, web designers, programmers, archival consultants, and library staff (just to name a few). This often distinguishes digital humanities projects as a form of scholarly publication from traditional humanities scholarship (i.e. Articles, Monographs, Edited Volumes). But the single or co-authored publication does not offer an ideal model for crediting the roles and contributions of each of the individuals involved in a digital project. Even the model of crediting contributions to an edited volume, where each author is attributed credit to their individual or co-authored contributions, does not serve as an effective model because each contributor is essentially contributing the same thing: an article or chapter to be included in the volume. Due to the diverse roles contributors play in a digital project, these projects must establish a fair and equitable attribution of credit to each contributor according to the role they fulfilled.

To explore issues with and approaches to crediting contributions to a digital humanities project, I want to draw your attention to and work through the provisions of the “Collaborator’s Bill of Rights,” which is part of a larger report entitled “Off the Tracks: Laying New Lines for Digital Humanities Scholars.” This report was the result of a workshop on professionalization and ethics in digital humanities centers held from January 20–21, 2010, which focused on the murkiness of potential professional development and career trajectories for those working on digital projects and utilizing digital methods. Hosted by Tanya Clement and Doug Reside, this workshop brought together many prominent digital humanists to discuss, write down, and possibly clear up some of these ambiguities. One important section was on Collaboration, and the “Collaborator’s Bill of Rights” provides a set of guidelines for collaborating and crediting collaborators on digital projects. While this document might not represent a consensus of the entire digital humanities community (if there ever really is one), it does represent the collaborative work of many well-known and widely read digital humanities practitioners. Moreover, by considering the four main sections of the “Collaborator’s Bill of Rights” we can explore not only the proper way to organize, document, and credit collaboration but also look into what the major issues with collaboration seem to be.

The “Collaborator’s Bill of Right’s” is divided into four main sections. The first section states:

1) All kinds of work on a project are equally deserving of credit (though the amount of work and expression of credit may differ). And all collaborators should be empowered to take credit for their work.*

This statement not only reveals a call for fairness in crediting work on digital projects but also calls your attention to the “all kinds of work on a project,” which reminds us that work on large, collaborative digital humanities projects often involve very different roles. It is very rare for a single individual (for the purposes of this scenario, let’s say an individual scholar) to be responsible for every part of a digital project. Often we require the help of web developers, programmers, librarians, and archivists. This entry, therefore, calls our attention to how a project manager is responsible for crediting each collaborator according to the magnitude and importance of his or her contributions to a project. In a more lopsided scale of collaboration, one might be able to get away with an “Acknowledgements” page—similar to what we often see in scholarly monographs. However, one needs to be sure to attribute credit to each individual working on the project according to the importance of his or her contribution.

This section also brings up the agency of each collaborator to take credit for his or her work, but it is explored in more detail in the next section:

2) The DH community should default to the most comprehensive model of attribution of credit: credit should take the form of a legible trail that articulates the nature, extent, and dates of the contribution. (Models in the sciences and the arts may be useful.)

Section two is divided into two parts. First, it concerns the DH community as a whole. It says digital projects should emulate the models of credit utilized by the sciences and the arts as a useful starting point. I think this makes sense, considering collaborative work appears to be more common in these fields than in the humanities so we might as well borrow from what works for them. The key point here is to maintain a trail of credit that is as detailed and accurate as possible so that everyone receives the credit that they deserve. But the second part of this entry (text not provided in this blog post), I believe is more revealing. It concerns the rights of collaborators in being credited and crediting themselves in “Descriptive Papers & Project Reports,” “Websites,” and on “CVs.” These three subsections demonstrate the right of each collaborator to demand credit appropriate to their contribution. Furthermore, this section does not define what makes one contribution more worthy of credit than another. Instead it leaves it up to the collaborators to determine credit value. This is important because then each project can make an honest appraisal of what kind of credit different types of work deserve. At the same time, the “CVs” section gives the individual collaborator the right to “express their contributions honestly and comprehensively” on their curriculum vitae. Overall, these first two sections stress a need for transparency regarding the collaboration process and workload while maintaining academic honesty and integrity from both the project as a whole and the individual collaborators.

The third section of the Bill of Rights concerns problems with credit and access to a project that has support from a particular institution(s):

3) Universities, museums, libraries, and archives are locations of creativity and innovation. Intellectual property policies should be equally applied to all employees regardless of employment status. Credit for collaborative work should be portable and legible. Collaborators should retain access to the work of the collaboration.

This brings up another issue with digital projects. Since they are often funded by and linked to a particular institution or group of institutions, issues of intellectual property often come up when a collaborator (by choice or by necessity) moves from a participating institution to another. Again, this section stresses an ethical consideration for collaborators. Even if they leave the institution supporting a digital project, their contribution should still be recognized or credited, and they should not be “locked out” of further developments in the project. I think this section is of vital importance for a collaborator, because if the digital humanists writing this report felt the need to address this, then it obviously has been a problem in the past. This entry follows a key theme of the rest of the Bill of Rights—everyone should be accountable and credited for his or her contribution to a project, regardless of his or her role (technical, research, metadata, etc.) and institutional affiliation. The key principle here is for collaborators not only to receive the credit they deserve, but also to allow collaborators appropriate access to their own work.

The final section looks into an important part of any digital project, funding. Recognizing that those who fund digital projects often have a significant influence in the vision and purpose of the project, the Bill of Rights states:

4) Funders should take an aggressive stance on unfair institutional policies that undermine the principles of this bill of rights. Such policies may include inequities in intellectual property rights or the inability of certain classes of employees to serve as PIs.

It again stresses ethical consideration of and credit for individual’s contributions to a project by looking to funders as a top-down way of making sure this happens. I understand this as a last-chance approach. If individuals working on a project fail to accurately and ethically attribute credit to collaborators, and institutional policies also interfere with transparency in crediting contributions, then it is the role of the funders to step in and make sure it is done correctly. I think this might be a bit naïve, especially since the very institutions that are preventing this transparency of credit are funding digital projects. However, I do think it is important to recognize the vital oversight role funders play on digital projects and to encourage them to use that role ethically and responsibly.

Overall, these principles encourage open and honest collaboration at the various levels of scale of a digital project. From individual collaborators to project managers, and institutions and funding sources, the “Collaborator’s Bill of Rights” tries to create an open and ethical environment where digital projects can flourish through effective collaboration—without each collaborator worrying that they will not receive credit for their work. Understanding these principles on collaboration is a crucial step that must be taken in order to conceive a fair and equitable collaboration. Furthermore, having a plan for collaboration and crediting contributions allows for more effective and creative digital products and ensures that each individual collaborating on a project receives the professional credit—whatever form that may be—they deserve.

By Dave DeCamp, World History PhD student, Northeastern University 

*All quotes are taken directly from the “Collaborator’s Bill of Rights”.

(this post is a repost from


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