Project Roles and a Consideration of Process and Product

This description of project roles provides an overview of the types of work that digital scholars do as part of collaborative projects. Because professional evaluation assumes individual work and contributions to knowledge as the basis upon which scholars are assessed, departments and institutions sometimes need to rethink the basis on which digital scholars participating in collaborative work. The AHA’s Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in History recommends that “departments should consider developing protocols for evaluating collaborative work.” The AHA’s digital history working group has developed this description of roles and process to assist departments in making the shift to being able to evaluate the contributions of individuals to larger, collaborative projects.


Project roles offer two benefits for digital historians and digital-history projects.

  1. Project roles, and the skillsets and contributions these roles imply, help digital historians expose the intellectual contributions to the field inherent in the process of creating a digital history project (and not just in the final product or publication).
  2. Project roles expose the collaborative nature of digital history projects and allow digital historians to appropriately credit collaborators while also explicitly documenting their own intellectual contributions to the field.

Process and product as elements of project-role definition

A consideration of the intellectual contributions a digital historian makes by, for instance, imposing specific categories on the information contained in an archival document, requires author and evaluator alike to consider where the intellectual contribution in a historical project is made.

Dividing process from product means considering the intellectual labor involved in the creation of a dataset, the preparation of digital analysis of that dataset, the presentation or distribution of a dataset online, and the communication of that project’s value to a variety of audiences. Consider, too, that a product might also be one element of a digital-history project’s process; a carefully constructed dataset made available for use by other scholars is both a product in its own right and should be considered a process contribution to any publications that are based on that dataset. Process decisions that have material implications in the final analysis and therefore in any resulting publications should be considered intellectual contributions to the field.

While the role titles may not be the same from project to project, digital-history contributions in particular arenas will have some commonalities.

  • Roles oriented toward the research questions and intellectual scoping that drive the project’s overall agenda
    • Keywords: author, PI, librarian, research assistant, editor
    • These roles are generative at all stages of the process and are often also involved in the product phase of a digital-history project, which can include web sites, online publications in a variety of venues, and print publications.
    • NB: It’s easy to overlook the process-oriented contributions of these roles and emphasize instead the contributions made in the final product or publication. Ignoring process for these roles elides a significant component of the intellectual contribution considerations in any digital-history project.
  • Roles oriented toward data and data processes
    • Keywords: Database management, data cleaning, markup, metadata, contributor
    • These roles often have a significant component of intellectual labor, in the form of bounding decisions around what data is collected, how, and from where.
    • Example: A network analysis of interactions designed to expose agency in a disease outbreak requires the PI, data managers and contributors to make decisions about where to gather information about historical actors, how to evaluate historical significance, how to categorize various historical actors and the types of interactions they have, etc.
  • Roles oriented toward tools-based analysis and/or technical development
    • Keywords: Developer, programmer, project manager, analyst
    • These roles can have a significant component of intellectual labor, in the form of bounding decisions around how data is processed, restructured, and analyzed.
    • Example: A network analysis of interactions designed to expose agency in a disease outbreak requires the analyst to produce, interpret and explain network statistics that govern how often various historical actors influence or interact with other actors around them.
  • Roles oriented toward presentation, distribution, and engagement
    • Keywords: Designer, visualization expert, marketing, community engagement
    • These roles can have a significant component of intellectual labor, in the form of bounding decisions around visualization or other visual cues that implicitly structure historical arguments; in the form of site navigation or other decisions that influence reader or educational experience; or in the form of community engagement, which draws
    • Example: A network analysis of interactions designed to expose agency in a disease outbreak requires the designer to present a network graph that both clearly delineates different types of historical actors and provides visual cues that define the missing actors and interactions in a network. A marketer or community engagement specialist might provide guidance on how to stage links/interactions between visualization, scholarly prose, and archival documents to best structure visitors’ understanding of the project’s intellectual contributions.

Best practices for credits and other acknowledgement of project roles

  • As either a contributor or a reviewer, consider the ethical boundaries that govern public acknowledgement of, and project ownership in, a digital history project. Does the project’s credit page provide a clear sense of who contributed and how they contributed? UCLA’s Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights provides some good guidance here:
  • Different types of acknowledgements may require different features.
    • Public credits on a web site should:
    • Credits in a publication with limited space should:
      • Note the names and contributions of contributors whose work materially influenced the current publication, either in process or product form.
      • Provide a link to the main credits page of the full project
    • Authorship documentation in a portfolio or promotion packet should:
      • Include an entry for each of the products and publications that result from a digital-history project, including any dataset releases, new methods, or software tools that resulted from the project.
      • Clearly document your specific duties and your intellectual contributions to the process and product portion of each of these different entries.
      • Note the names and contributions of contributors whose work materially influenced the intellectual contributions of the current entry, either in process or product form, and attempt to assign a percentage value to their contribution for this specific entry.
      • Provide a link to the main credits page of the full project
      • Example:

Authorship acknowledgement in the product phase

Authorship and acknowledgement of intellectual contribution appears in many forms, is rooted in disciplinary norms that change from field to field, and can vary depending on the medium in which acknowledgments appear. Additionally, traditional authorship often elides contributions that are vital to the project but fit outside the norm of “scholarly contribution,” activities which might include the creation of visualizations (such as maps or graphs), transcriptions or substantial contributions in the form of ongoing documented scholarly discussion and debate. These latter activities are often lost as a form of “invisible labor” in the analog context but become easier to track (both qualitatively and quantitatively) in digital projects.

When the distribution medium for a digital product can accommodate longer-form descriptions of each contributor’s efforts (websites, data sets, digital tools, 3D environments, etc.), the most straightforward option is to include an “about” or “acknowledgements” section that details both the practical and intellectual contributions made by each contributor, including those whose labor is often erased in the scholarly publishing process (e.g. transcription, production, formatting; see above).

Official authorship of scholarly outputs in which authorship information is limited (articles, monographs, whitepapers, etc..) needs more careful attention. Social-science practices for including authorship in a multiple-author paper are often ordered from first to last based on intellectual contribution to the current publication at hand. In other cases, teams may choose to alphabetize the authorship to indicate equal contribution to a project. In the natural sciences, last authorship can be very significant, indicating coordination of the entire intellectual enterprise regardless of involvement in the writing or analysis process for the current publication. In all disciplines, multiple articles may result from the same project, and lead authorship may change from article to article. Many publishers will accommodate a short footnote or acknowledgement paragraph that allows project teams to describe how they determined authorship order; where possible, this is the ideal because it exposes individual contributions to a collaborative project. This need not be very long: “authorship is in alphabetical order to indicate equal contributions by all authors” or “significance of author contributions to this publication is indicated by authorship order.”

For multiple-author publications in which first authorship indicates the most significant intellectual contributions, authorship responsibilities often fall along these lines:

  • Often the intellectual driving force behind the specific argument/research question in this article. Responsible for research question, direction of research, research team and its deadlines, and ultimately, the article’s conclusions.
  • Second author: Has generally made significant intellectual contribution to the article in terms of research-question development. Responsible for direction of a portion of the research and often responsible for managing a subgroup of the research team and its deadlines as they relate to this article. Second authors may have contributed as much time to the current article but may not have originated the research question, the analytical direction/methodology, or the management process for the article.
  • Co author: A third, fourth, or even fifth authorship still holds some responsibility for the intellectual development of an article’s argument or the argument’s analytical base. In some cases, a co-authorship may indicate a significant intellectual contribution with little in the way of additional time, but generally 3+ authors indicate time commitments that are significant but may constitute less intellectual contribution to the original research question or the article direction.
  • Contributor: Substantial contributions to a project that represent significant labor in areas that may be outside the norm of writing or analytical contribution.

Other references: