All should have prizes: Thinking about citation practice for the Visionary Cross Project

With the first meshes almost ready, and work beginning on writing up some of the results from our work on site in Ruthwell, authorship and credit questions at the Visionary Cross project are beginning to become more pressing.

Good practice, of course, would be to establish a system long in advance and stick to it throughout. The Visionary Cross project, however, has always operated as a relatively loose federation of scholars rather than a single project (more of a society, than a project in many ways) and, due in part to the long time it took to get major initial funding, crediting issues have until recently seemed quite far in the future.

Credit in the Traditional vs. Digital Humanities

Assigning credit has a big issue in the Digital Humanities for some time. Traditional humanities projects tend to involve a relatively small number of people working as approximate equals or fulfilling well-defined traditional roles. Two authors on a monograph are already unusual in the traditional humanities and three is almost unheard of. Larger collaborative projects, like edited volumes or conference proceedings, tend to be focussed on a single output and involve a relatively small number of people most of whom, again, are relative equals and have clearly defined and well-understood roles, namely “editor” and “author.”

Digital Humanities projects are different in that they often involve many more people and real distinctions in authority and responsibility. There are the people responsible for designing and managing the original project, getting funding, etc., people responsible for designing and carrying out technical work, sometimes even generations of people working on individual tasks. Amongst Humanities projects, only dictionaries, perhaps, have faced similar issues.


The question of credit has recently received a new impetus from the Faircite Initiative. This initiative hopes to push the already ongoing discussion of attribution and credit in a direction that will lead towards the establishment of best practice for the field. Between the initial publication of the Initiative, and a previous posting by Adam Crymble that seems to have led to its founding, a number of possible models have been surveyed, mostly from the natural and medical sciences–although interestingly, here too, there seems to be as yet no single standard even within single disciplines.

Acknowledging contribution to key project deliverables

The main focus of the Faircite Initiative  seems to be on assigning credit for primary project outcomes: the principal databases, interactive websites, and the like, that are the key project deliverables. The discussion began, indeed, with the question of how to cite the Old Bailey Online site, a massive resource of primary material from the records of London’s Old Bailey courthouse.

In some ways, this seems to me to be the more simple case, however. While there is obviously scope for disagreement (as indeed Faircite points out), it seems to me that the relationship of the participants to the project is at least relatively clear. Everybody who worked on the project presumably contributed to that major output and deserves some credit. Whether you credit them in the fashion of a movie (e.g. with a detailed list of credits and responsibilities on an “about” page) or as in a medical article (with a long list of authors who played various roles in the research and writing), the fact that a contribution was made remains clear.

But what about ancillary outputs?

What I’m interested in in the case of the Visionary Cross project is the assignment of credit in ancillary outputs: that is to say articles about the project or made possible by the work of the project and carried out as part of its funding or work plan. It seems clear already that our 3D models are going to represent a fairly revolutionary way of understanding and studying the cross–opening up completely new approaches to solving debates and even seeing problems. Already we can see a number of smaller papers coming just from looking at the cross using this technology.

The issue here seems to me to be one of individual initiative vs. group dynamics. On the one hand, ancillary outputs require often considerable creativity and work by the principal authors, effort which should be recognised as such. On the other, this work often depends on insight, work, and informal contributions of the rest of the project team. If a 3D scan of the Ruthwell Cross produced by a team allows a member of that team to write an article about some unique research topic on their own, should the members of the team be considered “co-authors” of the ancillary paper?

On the one hand, you might argue they should not be: all research depends on the contributions of others and authorship is not viral. We acknowledge the contributions of those on whose work we are basing our own research through citation, not assigning co-authorship.

On the other hand, however, work that comes directly out of a project participant’s collaboration on a project may involve contributions that are more significant than citation–and involve the other members assisting in various ways that are not easily captured in a citation or separate output. Project members frequently bounce ideas off of each other; they may contribute bibliography or comments that lead the principal authors to original insights; they might contribute crucial bibliography–whether formally or by simply asking if you had read something.

While this is also true of our larger network of colleagues, a crucial difference is the extent to which collaborators in a project are supposed to help each other in this way. Colleagues who give you key ideas or look up a bibliographic references for you after a discussion in the hallway are being generous: they are doing something they didn’t have to do and, while the wheels of scholarship run more smoothly when people do help you like this, they don’t go off the rails if they do not.

Project collaborators who do not do this kind of thing, on the other hand, are hurting the overall project. By joining a project, they agree implicitly or explicitly to collaborate with the other members of that project. And a lot of attention is paid in designing such projects to build structures and mechanisms that allow and encourage precisely this kind of interaction. Under such circumstances, the discussion or reference is not so much an act of generosity as a requirement of their membership in the group: a project in which collaborators do not share their individual knowledge and ideas is going to run into trouble very quickly.

Assuming informal collaboration and assistance inside a project is really the same as collegial generosity outside, moreover, can lead to abuse. In my experience, in many projects, the people who are thinking most constantly and deeply about a project are the more junior members: the graduate students who may be using their project work as part of their thesis or coursework. The opportunity cost of uncredited generosity in the early stages of scholars’ careers is much higher than in the later stages; their contribution to your thinking in your ancillary work may represent their first or only public participation in the debate.

Some models

Crymble and Faircite propose some models for determining authorship that seem to me to represent useful ways of looking at the problem. One of the better ones is by The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), who establish a three part test for authorship, arguing it involves

  1. substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;
  2. drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content;
  3. final approval of the version to be published.

According to this definition, a contributor is an author if they meet all three standards. Additional contributors to the publication, under this standard, may be acknowledged by name separately in an acknowledgements section. Crucially, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) also indexes this acknowledgement section meaning the (often junior) non-authorial contributors also receive credit and can have their work traced back to the final output.

The ICMJE definition is interesting in the case of ancillary outputs because it does not accept “acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group alone” as evidence of authorship. While on the main deliverable of a large project, it seems to me that it would be difficult to have these responsibilities and not fulfil the major criteria of authorship, this definition does represent a good discriminator for authorship on ancillary outputs. Graduate students who write a paper on something they learned in the course of their project work would not need to share authorship under this definition with their supervisor or the project funders if these had not played an important role in the conception of the project, and participated substantially in drafting the paper, and had a co-final say over publication: many supervisors and project directors might meet the first criteria; I’ve heard of supervisors who assert their right to the third; but only if they also met the third criteria could they be considered coauthors.

Interestingly, I think this might be a more restrictive approach than some Digital Humanities projects are taking, perhaps particularly in Canada, where broad acknowledgement of project participants as coauthors is quite common. At the annual conference of the Canadian Society for the Digital Humanities/Société canadienne des humanités numériques (CSDH/SCHN) it is quite common to see even quite specific papers with the names of most or all participants in a project as coauthors. The ICMJE approach would reduce this list to those who have actively participated in the conception, drafting, and final editing of the paper–a group that I often believe may be smaller than the longest author lists–but it would help increase the value of authorship by clearly defining what authorship meant in a way that is relatively clear and easily explained: being author of one paper (and acknowledged in another) under the ICMJE rules would be presumably more valuable to a beginning graduate student than being an “author” of two under an approach that treated all contributions as “authorship.”

The only issue with this approach–which is what I think I will propose to the others at the Visionary Cross–is the generic acceptability of the acknowledgements. Science requires authors to include a footnote acknowledging other contributors to the paper; the ICMJE requires an acknowledgement section. But humanities publications are not yet used to the idea. While acknowledgement slides are now common in Digital Humanities talks (I found that they took some getting used to in the beginning) and while adding an acknowledgements note or appendix to a longer publication may not raise many eyebrows even in quite traditional humanities journals, I can still see some editors baulking, particularly when the contribution involves a larger traditional humanities topic and the article size gets smaller. A three page note about some detail of the Ruthwell Cross credited to three authors and containing an acknowledgement footnote or appendix with another ten names from the larger project may attract comment the first time it is submitted to a traditional humanities journal.

On the other hand, the initial growing pains will be worth undergoing if the result is a clear way of distinguishing and assigning responsibility.



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