On Developing a Collaborators’ Bill of Responsibilities

The theme of DH2017 was Access. The papers that were given, and the discussions they engendered, were wide-ranging, encompassing open access publication, diversity within the digital humanities community, and access to funding and materials by researchers in developing countries as well as their ability to provide international access to their research. As I moved from panel to panel, however, another, somewhat unexpected, theme emerged: authorship and attribution within multi-researcher projects.

In 2016, the Software Sustainability Institute’s collaboration workshop centered around attribution and how to encourage better practice in acknowledging the contribution software makes to our research outputs and, critically, recognising that the development of research software is itself a valid research output. This event had been explicitly aimed at raising software to the same level of acknowledgement as traditional research. Yet, over five days in Montreal, it became increasingly clear that traditional research was also often unacknowledged.

The debate centered on what counted as “fair attribution” of work by student, postdoctoral,  technical and interdisciplinary researchers, with UCLA’s Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights mentioned time and again. Defining and recognising the contributions made to historical projects, such as Busa’s concordance or the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University, also came to the fore. In all cases, the core question was how do we conceptualize and quantify the contributions of listed and unlisted researchers and—perhaps more importantly—how (or should) we delineate hierarchies of contribution.

Some guidance on these matters does exist. The Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, upon which the UCLA guidelines are based, makes it clear that

  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
  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, specifically that anyone who collaborated on the project should be listed as author in papers and project reports in a fair ordering based on emerging community conventions.

Having never encountered either Bill previously, I had my own—somewhat informal—guidelines on attribution and authorship: Don’t be a jerk.

Although I stand by my philosophy, I accept that a more codified version may be appropriate when working in large teams, especially across borders, as differing and implicit promotion and appointment criteria may not be universally understood.  What follows are my initial thoughts on an appropriate gradation of acknowledgement and attribution in humanities (digital or otherwise) publications.

The Unspoken Rules of Co-Authorship

That collaborative projects give rise to co-authored publications is completely logical; yet, like many historians, I find the rules around multiple-authorship somewhat baffling. There are, of course, innumerable examples of collaborative humanities projects to look to, and publications with a small number of co-authors, but the finer details of author sequence and “gift” authorship were matters best left to STEM, where page-long author lists were commonplace and well understood—or so I believed;on closer inspection, the politics of co-authorship are evidently just as labyrinthine in the sciences.

Ten years ago, Teja Tscharntke, Michael E. Hochberg, Tatyana A. Rand, Vincent H. Resh, and Jochen Krauss published “Author Sequence and Credit for Contributions in Multiauthored Publications” — probably the most accurate and search-friendly title I’ve come across in recent years. They noted that

Ranking the first or second author in a two-author paper is straightforward, but the meaning of position becomes increasingly arbitrary as the number of authors increases beyond two. Criteria for authorship have been discussed at length, because of the inflationary increase in the number of authors on papers submitted to biomedical journals and the practice of “gift” authorship, but a simple way to determine credit associated with the sequence of authors’ names is still missing.

They then suggested a series of standards, clearly defined, that would signal the relative contribution of each author and therefore the percentage of that publication’s impact that they should be allotted. More recent discussions provide slightly different models, such as including the qualitative nature of each contribution within author list, but they admit that beyond first author == greatest contribution, attribution practices still vary widely. As a fan of precision, I cannot but applaud their efforts, though contribution designations such as “conceptualization” may raise more questions than they answer. Yet, on the whole, sequence wrangling between a small number of history colleagues, between peers of relatively equal standing, was not the main concern. The key concern was working across disciplines and across lines of seniority.

The Letter of Contract Labour Law

According the Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, “a student must be paid for his or her time if he or she is not empowered to make critical decisions about the intellectual design of a project or a portion of a project (and credited accordingly). Students should not perform mechanical labor, such as data-entry or scanning, without pay.” While the idea that payment prevents or at least reduces opportunities for exploitation (I have always paid student research assistants rather than offer ‘course credit’ or otherwise build upon student assessments), it also presents several moral difficulties. The SCBR suggests a hierarchy of work that I am not completely comfortable with, indicating that “critical decisions” about “intellectual design” define collaborative contribution (that is, real research), while “mechanical”  work, left undefined, is contract labour, to paid for but not requiring citation or acknowledgement.

My difficulty is not the general principle at work here—that authorship should reflect design and analysis, not given to those following implementation instructions designed by others, and one would presume that such a distinction is easily made—but this is simply not the case.  Take, for example, the increasingly ambiguous relationship between programming and coding. One individual, having a deep understanding of a historical data set and its context, designs a means for analysing it at scale, namely which questions should be asked and which criteria should be used for determining the answers. Here, intellectual design in clearly present.  A second individual, fluent in multiple programming languages and with a deep understanding of hardware and networking architectures, translates those questions and scoring criteria into programming code.  They have clearly made “critical decisions” about how to implement the programme, how to organise the sequence of processes to be both efficient and accurate, but they haven’t “designed” the underlying logic.  Are they equal contributors to the final project or is the “coder” merely performing mechanical labour? Take a third individual, a post-doctoral research assistant applying a coding schema during data entry, using their disciplinary expertise to accurately assigned subjective themes and designations to the primary data. Both the coder and the assistant performing data entry are making interpretive decisions that will shape the final analysis but both (hypothetically) are being paid to carry out specific tasks designed by the researcher. At which points in disciplinary experience, expertise or time spent on a project do these activities qualify as “collaborations” and at which point are they merely “contract technical support”. The line is not as clear as we may have originally thought.

Turing to intellectual property law may provide a degree of certainty. In many Anglophone jurisdictions, intellectual works created in the course of employment legally belong to the employer, not the creator.  There are, of course, provisos, such as the work being explicitly part of the contracted labour and their being no contrary agreement between the parties regarding intellectual property. For added legal clarity, the employee-employer relationship is generally defined by the “Control Test”. If the employer could (de jure) control the development of the intellectual work through specific orders or directions, even if he or she does not exercise that right (de facto), then the rights associated with that intellectual property belong to the person who contracted the labour, not the creator.

Yet, the idea of employer-employee on a research project is thorny.  Are CO-Is and technical leads employees of the PI, or does this designation only apply to those with “assistant” in their job description, or to those earning an hourly wage? Technically, most PI’s are employees of their university or institution—which leads to my teaching resources being technically the property of the university, even if my employment contract generally allows me to return the copyright of my research outputs. Relying on legal distinction, therefore, if unlikely to assist me in pursuing my primary philosophy with any sense of fairness.

Instead, I purpose four attribution designations that I feel best represent my own intended practice and what I would expect from those I choose to collaborate with:

Lead Authorship

It is my belief that regardless of the work you have contributed to the research project, its design or implementation, lead authorship on a publication should be reserved for the individual(s) who actually composed the publication—and I do make a distinction here between compose and write/type/translate. Lead authorship should be given to those who have made the intellectual decisions on how to frame the argument being made, on which evidence to present in support of that argument, and on the overall structure and content of the publication. The only possible exception would be if the author had played no significant part in the design or implementation of the project from which the publication was derived—but, in that case, they are a reviewer of the project more than an author of original research.


Co-Authorship, (by which I mean the status immediately below the lead authors, rather than joint lead authorship) should be given to any individual that has made a significant contribution to the design or implementation of the research being presented, who has created the data tables or visualisations upon which the conclusions are built, or who has composed a smaller proportion of the text, such as the methodology or a case study. Co-authorship is also a useful means of building upon the research that has not yet been prepared for publication and therefore cannot be cited directly.


Neither lead nor co-authorship should be allocated solely by virtue of previously published research, even it is has directly influenced or supported the publication at hand. This is clearly the realm of citation (in the case of published work) or acknowledgement (in the case of conversation).


Acknowledgements should be used to indicate appreciation for volunteered or attribution of paid labour outside the design of the project. Those providing above-the-call-of-duty support, such as reading draughts, offering advice, or helping to access important research materials are commonly acknowledged in the publications they have assisted. In the case of individuals paid to work on the project in an implementation-only role, such as non-interpretive data entry, should be given acknowledgement rather than authorship not because their work is less valuable, but because their role did not include authorship of either the project design or the publication itself. Instead, an acknowledgement expresses appreciation at their accurate and timely implementation of the project and serves as a record of their contribution.

It is from these thoughts that I propose the following Collaborators’ Bill of Responsibilities, those practices we should adhere to whenever we find ourselves in a position of power or authority.  Comments, critiques and amendments gratefully received.

Collaborators’ Bill of Responsibilities

I, as the individual submitting a book, article, white paper or other research output for publication, will ensure that

  1. The lead or first authorship of the research output is given to the individual who designed or composed the majority of the argument, programme, data set or other substantive work, regardless of who physically typed or otherwise formatted the text or data files for publication.
  2. If no single individual composed the majority of the text (or other substantive material), all colleagues who have contributed a comparably significant portion to the publication, whether in text or another format, are accorded joint lead or first authorship status.
  3. The names of lead authors are listed in alphabetical order, or an any other order agreed to by all lead authors. If the order is non-alphabetical, it will reflect the relative proportion of work contributed to the particular research output, rather than institutional or project seniority.
  4. Those who composed a smaller proportion of the text (or other substantive material) than the lead authors are accorded co- or secondary authorship.
  5. Those who designed part of the research project that directly informed or supported the research output are accorded co- or second authorship.
  6. Those who exercised independent critical or interpretive judgement in the implementation of technical aspects of the project, including data entry, cleaning and processing or creating visualisations or other supplementary materials, are accorded co- or second authorship. This is a reflection of the effect that their disciplinary or technical expertise had on the final conclusions drawn from the data or visualisations offered.
  7. Co- or second authorship is listed in alphabetical order, or an any other order agreed to by all lead authors, following the listing of the lead or first authors. If the order is non-alphabetical, it will reflect the relative proportion of work contributed to the particular research output, rather than institutional or project seniority.
  8. All previously published or forthcoming research is fully cited.
  9. All individuals who provided non-interpretive technical or research support, whether paid or volunteered, and regardless of institutional status or rank, should be given appropriate qualitative credit in the publications acknowledgments.


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