Tagging the Faces behind the Code: Why DH Projects Need to Acknowledge All Contributors

In a blog post from January 13, entitled “Citation in Digital Humanities: Is the Old Bailey Online a Film, or a Science Paper?” Adam Crymble, Webmaster and project developer for NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment) discusses the problems surrounding the citation and attribution of work in largish digital projects.  “[W]hose names,” he asks, “was I bound by ‘good scholarship’ to include in the citation. Who deserved public credit?”  In other words, as he goes on to ask, what scholarly model might serve to account for the fact that many — perhaps most — projects in the digital humanities are the work not merely of the “principal investigator(s),” but also of many others — coders, project managers, and so forth — who have contributed in vital ways to the realization of a project?

Writing of the decision of the Old Bailey Online database to omit the names of all contributors in its suggested model for citing the resource, Crymble notes:

In an effort not to emphasize the contributions of some over that of others, this policy makes most contributors entirely invisible. This is particularly significant for people in the alternative academic (alt-ac) fields whose career progression and in many cases, next meal, depend upon the strength of their portfolios. These people have roles such as project management, database building, and web design, all of which are crucial to ensure the projects themselves are world class. If we adopt the no-names policy across the board, these people will never be cited anywhere, whereas traditional academics may still have books and journal articles on top of their digital project work.

Crymble goes on to suggest that a more appropriate policy is to model scholarly citations after those used in the sciences (where the names of all those who made “meaningful” contributions are included), and to be sure that, as is the case in films, a “credits” page is included within the resource itself that comprehensively lists all of those involved in the project.

This strikes me as a pretty reasonable approach to take, although I can imagine that some discussion about what exactly constitutes a “meaningful” contribution is likely to ensue.  Underlying the post’s discussion of methods of citation and attribution, however, is the larger issue raised by Crymble’s justification for the need for a new policy.  How we attribute and acknowledge work in the digital humanities is much more than a merely technical or even scholarly concern: it is, at least in part, also about “fairness” and “justice” to all of those who are characteristically working behind the scenes to plan, manage, and build the databases, software, and resources that we have come to depend upon. That those who are least likely to be acknowledged in scholarly citations, or even within the resource itself, are also generally the most vulnerable and those most in need, professionally, of acknowledgment, makes this question a particularly pressing one.

Crymble’s argument is, I think, a pretty compelling one in its own right, but I’d like to extend it a little with two further considerations that elaborate upon his excellent points. The first of these relates most obviously to the argument made above.  The digital humanities are distinct from most other areas within the larger field of arts and humanities because they rely, to a far greater degree, upon what we might call “infrastructure.”  Part of that infrastructure is material.  We need computers, servers, specialized software, digitization equipment, and purpose-built labs and facilities to do much of what we do.

At the same time, however, we also need to have working alongside us people possessed of a pretty varied set of specialized skills.  These skills range from project management to such things as programming, hardware maintenance, and interface design;  they are often vital to a project, and yet represent specialized talents that a great many of the academics who are “principal investigators” are unlikely to possess.

We work quite hard, through funding applications, lobbying around Deans’ offices, and so forth, to ensure that we have the material infrastructure that we need:  we should be working at least as hard to support and sustain the “people resources” that we also need.  If we don’t find the ethics of providing proper acknowledgement to these colleagues motivation enough, self-interest should dictate that we do so, for our projects themselves will benefit from the participation of colleagues who have been recognized and, perhaps, have reaped the rewards of that recognition through  greater financial stability and further opportunities for professional development and training.  The digital humanities as a whole gains by nurturing, rather than exploiting, our human resources colleagues.

My final point on this issue is, perhaps, somewhat more abstract.  Within the last 30 years or so, approaches to book history and bibliography have undergone a dramatic and fundamental transformation:  foremost among the things that have changed has been a growing appreciation of the fact that even the products of print culture are, in fact, collaborative productions.  D. F. McKenzie’s seminal identification of the “sociology of texts” refocused attention upon the impact not merely of the material forms of the printed book, but also upon the contributions of those — printers, compositors, proofreaders, binders — who created the material culture, the “forms [that] effect meaning” (13).  As McKenzie reminded us, books have never been the creation of solitary “authors”: they are in fact born of  and shaped by a whole community of those (including, ultimately, even readers and critics) who influenced the form in which they were finally expressed.

At one level, a sociology simply reminds us of the full range of social realities which the medium of print had to serve, from receipt blanks to bibles.  But it also directs us to consider the human motives and interactions which texts involve at every stage of their production, transmission, and consumption.  It alerts us to the roles of institutions, and their own complex structures, in affecting the forms of social discourse, past and present. (15)

Jerome McGann has similarly argued that such “interactions” are embedded within what he calls “the bibliographic codes” of books — the material and formal features of the physical object that are, ultimately, the signs of a collaborative endeavour.  And, like McKenzie, he has argued that the “form” that is the end result of that collaboration is a significant generator of meaning:

[B]oth linguistic and bibligraphical texts are symbolic and signifying mechanisms.  Each generates meaning, and while the bibliographical text commonly functions in a subordinate relation to the linguistic text, “meaning” in literary work results from the exchanges these two great semiotic mechanisms work with each other. (67)

If it is true that “form effects meaning” — and surely the entire digital humanities enterprise is fundamentally predicated upon the conviction that this is so — then it is undeniably true that those who help produce that form impact upon the meanings produced.  In other words, it is not merely the recognized “scholars” and PIs who are making “meaningful” contributions to these projects, but also the interface designers, the coders, and indeed, everyone involved in the creation of “form.”  They “effect meaning” as well.

So, where does this leave us?  Well, perhaps it merely returns us full-circle back to where Adam Crymble started us:  how, in practical terms, can we acknowledge the very real, and very meaningful contributions of all those involved in a project, and what scholarly form should our citations take?

I’m not sure that I have a better practical solution to offer than Crymble’s.  What I do want to emphasize is the importance of his insight that we need to better account for and recognize the contributions of those with whom we “principal investigators” work.

To fail to make such acknowledgements is, as Crymble argues, unjust.  It is also unwise, counterproductive, and ultimately, inaccurate.



McGann, Jerome J. “What Is Critical Editing.”  The Textual Condition. Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1991. 48-68.

McKenzie, D. F.  “Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts.” Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts.  1986.  Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1999.  9-76.


3 responses to “Tagging the Faces behind the Code: Why DH Projects Need to Acknowledge All Contributors

  1. Your analogy to the bookbinders, editors, etc, raises an interesting question. At what point does the credit-train stop? One could certainly take the case to its extreme and insist on crediting the guy who first discovered you could scribble messages on rocks as someone who made a meaningful contribution to the project. I can see people discounting the arguments for shared authorship of digital projects along the same lines. Do we credit Tim Berners Lee for inventing the Internet, for example?

    I get the impression that in the humanities, there’s this belief that he (or she) whose intellectual ideas are being expressed in a work is the author – though certainly no scholarship is solely the intellectual pursuit of one person as our footnotes upon footnotes show. This is a belief I think most strongly held by those who have their solo-authorship to lose if they begin sharing credit. Yet, even the most academic of BBC history documentaries lists a long list of names who made the project possible. So how can we say a web-based project was produced by one or two people, and a BBC documentary was a team project presented by an individual historian (first author)?

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Adam!

    You are, I think, right about the tendency in the humanities to invest nearly all of the scholarly “worth” of a piece in the “intellectual author” of it. Add to that a continuing resistance in the humanities to the notion of collaborative work — a resistance fueled, not incidentally, by the way in which we credit and award academics for publications — and it’s not hard to understand why things are the way that they are.

    Given that we generally read scholarly papers and books for the “ideas” that they communicate, this is probably also somewhat reasonable; the paper that is valuable because it reports “objective fact” or data that has been assembled by a “team,” in the way that a scientific experiment or anthropological survey might, is fairly rare.

    That said, the reason that we consult digital resources of whatever kind is generally precisely *because* they are digital — because they are arrayed in a particular form, or enable particular kinds of uses, visualizations, etc. In other words, the form that the “ideas” take matters. So maybe we need to account for that too. What about something like “Investigator, Principal, et al.”? This would at least alert readers to the fact that there is more than one person responsible for the resource.

    You distinguish, in your blog post, very nicely between “citation” and “acknowledgement.” To some degree, though, the one is dependent upon the other: I can only “cite” someone as an author if that person is “acknowledged” somewhere in the resource. So ultimately, it is to some degree the PI her/himself who is going to determine whose contributions were “meaningful” enough to note. Likely, that’s not going to include Berners-Lee (or Gutenberg, for that matter).

    I myself tend to restrict acknowledgments to people with whom I have actually communicated. The decision as to how to acknowledge them is a subjective judgement made by myself. If I got a little advice in coding from my faculty’s staff tech person, then I will probably informally acknowledge that person on the “Acknowledgments” page. On the other hand, I *do* more formally acknowledge the work of my undergraduate work study students, noting exactly what they did (as for instance transcription, light tagging, or proofing). In part, this is about intellectual honesty, and in part about fairness.

    What we really need to do, I guess, is work to build a culture within the humanities as a whole that is more accepting, not merely of collaborative work, but also of a proper scholarly acknowledgment of that. Part of that process will surely involve coming to a consensus about how we cite and acknowledge such contributions.

  3. Pingback: Current Citation Practices in Academia « Fair Cite

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