How we collaborate 3: the project charter

Written by Ruth AhnertJune 20, 2019Comments: 0

One of the ways we are trying to establish good foundations for collaboration on Living with Machines is through our project charter. Project charters are gradually becoming more common, as demonstrated by this crowdsourced list of examples. The idea to have one for this project came from a chat I had Melissa Terras, who sits on our advisory board. She suggested I read Stan Ruecker and Milena Radzikowska’s ‘The iterative design of a project charter for interdisciplinary research’ to explain why a charter might be a sensible option for a project as large and radically interdisciplinary as our own. Their paper describes the authors’ experience with the iterative development and use of a project charter for helping to manage expectations of the various members of interdisciplinary research teams.

So why might a charter be necessary on a project like ours? It is a recognition of the fact that collaboration can be uncomfortable, but that working through that discomfort is productive and necessary. One reason for that is that an interdisciplinary team necessarily brings together members from different research cultures, with different expectations about how to work, and how to disseminate research findings. A charter attempts to bridge those cultures by establishing a set of shared expectations and practices.  

Before the project recruited, the core team of investigators collaborated on drafting a project charter that we could share with shortlisted candidates, so they knew what kind of job they were accepting. More recently, now our full team is on board, we reviewed the charter with all team members to make sure it still expressed the aims and ideals of the project.

Some parts of the charter will probably be challenging for members of the team, depending on their background or individual circumstances. Our commitment to co-publication and giving credit to all parties involved in a given endeavour will produce citations that might look unfamiliar to our colleagues in humanities departments, and therefore require some defence when discussing REF submissions.

Another aspect that is challenging logistically is our charter’s emphasis on meeting face-to-face where possible. While our new recruits are all based at the British Library or The Alan Turing Institute (which is situated inside the BL), we do also have distributed team members as far afield at Norwich and Exeter. We therefore try to think strategically about when to have these members present and when to make use of video calls. Why bother with this? Well, it is a point that is related to our commitment to build meaningful, honest, and generous relationships within the project. We have stated that ‘if the practices, values or traditions of our disciplines come into tension, we will commit to positive communication and to remain self-aware of our own actions’. So much of that relies on good communication. There is a whole subset of the charter that is just about values of communication: ‘we encourage questions and experimentation’; ‘we try to listen carefully and let others speak first’; and we commit to explaining ‘discipline specific terms and jargon, adding terms and definitions to the Project Glossary’. All of these things make the process of research take longer, but there is a huge pay-off, for with it comes of increased knowledge and understanding.

The full charter is outlined below. Those of you familiar with Rueker and Radzikowska’s charter will observe our debt to them. We also have taken inspiration from the Scholars Lab Charter, which is a remarkably generous set of statements. But we have also made it our own, and I am very proud of the way the team have thought carefully and kindly about its values. We do not want this to be the final iteration of the charter, however. We intend the charter to be a living document, and we therefore keep it in the Wiki in our project’s Github repository, so it can be updated as we grow in experience as a team. For this reason we also encourage those of your reading this post to comment and suggest changes. 

Living with Machines Project Charter

1. We are interested in disseminating the results of this project as widely and openly as possible, with credit to us for doing so. Our policies around credit should balance both generosity and meaningfulness.

  1. Project members may use any of it as examples in presentations, papers, interviews, and other media opportunities. They may post any of it to their web sites. Wherever possible, they should mention the names of the other project members who were directly involved, as well as the name of the project.
  2. The project team will maintain a collaborative project web site, which will contain links to all the presentations and publications of the group.
  3. For presentations or papers where this work is the main topic, all team members who worked directly on this sub-project should be co-authors. Any member can elect at any time not to be listed, but may not veto publication.
  4. For presentations or papers that spin-off from this work, only those members directly involved need to be listed as co-authors. The others should be mentioned if possible in the acknowledgements, credits, or article citations. We suggest accompanying publications with a task breakdown (included in the article or published as an appendix on the website) to ensure that authorship is associated with a clear and meaningful contribution.
  5. We will strive to publish our research outcomes (data, publications, code) as openly as possible, and to strive to contribute to our understanding of open science best practices, taking special care to make our results reproducible. We will do this where applicable and acknowledging the different academic and practitioner cultures we belong to.
  6. We will seek to fulfil the aims above in ways that will best serve the future careers of the most junior members of the team, and do not place a burden on them to be the ones taking risks (e.g. in new publishing formats).

2. We value meeting in person (where at all possible), and meeting regularly, in order to build community, shared understanding, and expertise.

  1. We value face-to-face discussions over text-based conversations. Video calls are a decent replacement for in-person meetings. And we look to make as many opportunities as possible for people to work side-by-side in order to aid learning, discovery, insight, and to clear blocks to progress.
  2. All project members are expected to join the monthly Lab (Sprint Review; Sprint Planning) meetings pertinent to them, either in person or virtually. These meetings are designed to share progress and distribute tasks for the next sprint.
  3. For members working in situ at the British Library/Alan Turing Institute there will be a short weekly ‘standup’ meeting covering what you achieved in the last week, what you plan on achieving in the coming week, and anything which may get in the way of that.
  4. Project meetings are open. No-one can be purposively excluded. However, depending on the topic and task, invites can be selective.

 3. We intend this work to move forward at a steady pace, given due awareness of the vagaries of life.

  1. Project members will make every effort to attend meetings as arranged and to keep in regular contact by email or other electronic means.
  2. Through the Sprint Review and Planning Meetings, project members will jointly establish and attempt to meet successive monthly goals.
  3. Project phases will be arranged so as to minimise the need for sequential completion of one phase before another can begin: wherever possible, phases will run in parallel, with communication occurring between people as they work on each phase, rather than waiting to communicate until the end.
  4. Where blocks occur on work, or progress is not made in line with expectations, we commit to exploring and solving those problems in the spirit of collaboration.

4. We acknowledge that this project will require an organisational effort due to its scale and ambitions, and will therefore develop and demonstrate new scholarly practices in the digital humanities.

  1. Project members will keep safe and regularly distribute (if not otherwise accessible) all native files generated for the project: word-processed documents, presentations, source code, images, transcriptions, databases, and any other data files or source files. These files will be unflattened and editable. Where copyright restrictions do not apply, fonts should also be included in shared files. We encourage members to store these in the Github repository where suitable.
  2. Insofar as ethics clearances allow, data backup will be provided through central project servers. Local projects should also make provisions for regular backup of all project files, including versions of files in progress.
  3. Project members are expected to keep up-to-date documentation of code, datasets, system architecture, methods, and data sources, with a view to ensure reproducibility. Again, we encourage members to store these in the Github repository.
  4. We need to look after data safely and securely. A data security tier level classification must be conducted for each dataset we ingest or otherwise copy into the project. It is desirable this happens before ingest, otherwise the default of tier 3 shall be applied until such a time the dataset can be reclassified.
  5. We wish to work quickly and iteratively without unnecessary computational hurdles. We will strive to create a more accessible (lower tier) subset for each dataset, this will follow the data security tier level classification in a similar way.
  6. We want to share what we have (internally) and where it is. When ingesting data from external parties IPR, copyright and licencing of those data should be established before ingest. Datasets should be stored in the most appropriate location given the project infrastructure and their presence documented.

5. We wish to communicate in such a way as to preserve professional dignity and sanity.

  1. We will strive to maintain a tone of mutual respect whenever we write or meet, and to forgive lapses if they occur.
  2. We will attempt to keep communications transparent, for example, by copying everyone involved in any given discussion, and by directly addressing with each other any questions or concerns that may arise.
  3. We will strive where possible to meet and solve issues in person or on a call, to prevent email build-up.
  4. If the practices, values or traditions of our disciplines come into tension, we will commit to positive communication and to remain self-aware of our own actions.
  5. We will explain discipline specific terms and jargon, adding terms and definitions to the Project Glossary. Asking for clarification or an explanation will always be the right thing to do.

6. We would like to foster goodwill among all the participants.

  1. In making financial decisions, we will attempt to allocate resources in ways that indicate commitment to each of the people on the team.
  2. Members will also watch for and notify each other of opportunities for commercialisation and licensing. Any commercial agreements or plans will be made so as to include and equally benefit all members of the group.
  3. We will strive to be a group working toward different parts of a larger, coherent and important whole – one that promises to exceed the sum of its parts.
  4. Job titles aren’t everything. We don’t assume knowledge maps directly to a job title or that people’s interests, expertise or ideas are limited by a job title.
  5. We encourage questions and experimentation. We value knowledge and experience but also value the potential opportunities deriving from doing things differently.
  6. We value curiosity, playfulness, respect, and engagement with a variety of disciplines, experiences, and realms of professional knowledge. We bootstrap each other. We try to listen carefully and let others speak first.

7. As the British Library is a major partner in this project, we will seek to keep their Mission at the centre of our intellectual aims and strategic decision-making.

Mission The British Library’s mission is to make our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone for research, inspiration and enjoyment. Our vision is for the British Library to be the most open, creative and innovative institution of its kind in the world.

Values We are a professional community who:

  • puts users at the heart of everything we do
  • listens, innovate and adapt to a changing world
  • treats everyone with respect and compassion
  • embraces equality, fairness and diversity
  • acts with openness and honesty
  • collaborates to do more than we could by ourselves.

8. Mindful of the potential impact of AI methods, we will collaborate to agree on an ethical statement of care for people affected by the project.

Sample statements include Google’s AI Principles


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