Supporting Positive Collaboration in Digital Online Projects

Luis Meneses 

Luis Meneses is a Mitacs Elevate Postdoctoral Fellow and the Assistant Director (Technical Development) of the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria. He is a Fulbright scholar, and has served on the Board of the TEI Consortium and on the IEEE Technical Committee on Digital Libraries. His research interests include digital humanities, digital libraries, information retrieval and human-computer interaction. His current research focuses on the development of tools that facilitate open social scholarship.

University of Victoria

Lynne Siemens 

Lynne Siemens is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria. Her research and teaching interests are in academic entrepreneurship, project management, and team development and collaboration.

University of Victoria

Ray Siemens 

Ray Siemens ( is Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Victoria, Canada, in English and Computer Science, and past Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing; in 2019, he was also Leverhulme Visiting Professor at U Loughborough and, 2019-22, Global Innovation Chair in Digital Humanities in the Centre for 21st Century Humanities at U Newcastle. He is founding editor of the electronic scholarly journal Early Modern Literary Studies, and his publications include, among others, Blackwell's Companion to Digital Humanities (2004, 2015 with Schreibman and Unsworth), Blackwell's Companion to Digital Literary Studies (2007, with Schreibman), A Social Edition of the Devonshire MS (2012, 2015; MRTS/Iter & Wikibooks, with Crompton et al.), Literary Studies in the Digital Age (2014; MLA, with Price), Doing Digital Humanities (2017; Routledge, with Crompton and Lane), and The Lyrics of the Henry VIII MS (2018; RETS). He directs the Implementing New Knowledge Environments project, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, and the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab, recently serving as a member of governing council for the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, as Vice President / Director of the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences (for Research Dissemination), Chair of the MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions, and Chair of the international Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations.

University of Victoria

William R Bowen 

William R. Bowen has published on speculative musical thought, Renaissance platonism, book history, and digital technologies. His contributions to digital humanities include being the founding director of Iter Inc., list owner and past editor of FICINO, and founding co-editor of New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies and the Early Modern Digital Review. He is currently editor of Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme and editor-in-chief of Iter Press. After serving as director of the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies (Victoria University), chair of the Department of Humanities (University of Toronto Scarborough), and chair of the Department of Arts, Culture and Media (UTSC), he retired in 2019 and received the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies Lifetime Achievement Award/Société canadienne d'études de la Renaissance Prix pour l’ensemble de la carrière.

University of Toronto Scarborough

November 09, 2021 


Open, digital scholarship in the Arts and Humanities is significant for facilitating public access to and engagement with research and as a mechanism of Canada’s growing digital scholarly infrastructure. But the path to adopting open, digital scholarship on a national scale has been challenging, not least of all due to questions of economic stability, infrastructure, access, understanding, implementation, and engagement (Meneses, Siemens, and Bowen 2021). The projects are not the products of single researchers but rather partnerships between groups of individuals with the required skills and expertise. In this paper we focus specifically on the development of open digital scholarship by elaborating on ways to support positive collaboration between the humanities researcher and the developer in digital online projects.

In the digital humanities, researchers and developers typically collaborate on digital projects. Online digital projects are often employed by researchers for two purposes: first, to explore their research questions; and second, to expose their research to a larger audience. The researcher is usually a humanities scholar who may or may not have some technological or computational expertise but with a desire to explore a humanities research question with computational methods. These facilitate the exploration of research questions with speed, convenience, and replicability. On the other hand, the developer is a technology enthusiast (who may or may not have an academic alignment) or a computer scientist with a desire to apply their skills and expertise to a humanities research question. In particular, since the early 2000s, there has been growing interest from computer scientists, physicists, and applied mathematicians to work on large data sets in the humanities (McGillivray et al. 2020). These data sets are interesting for researchers beyond the humanities because they are often unstructured, incomplete, ambiguous, multilingual, heterogeneous, and in different formats. Moreover, humanities datasets can offer rich opportunities for studying and modelling messy and complex data. The multidisciplinary research that these datasets afford has immense promise to yield new insights into the historical and cultural record, and it can be pursued by humanists and developers by engaging in meaningful collaborations with each other.

Online digital projects can become inherently complex, both in their development and in their long-term maintenance. As software created collaboratively by researchers and developers, these projects often have a limited useful life, which is accompanied by requests for changes from the researcher and updates from the developer. As it can be expected, it is often the case that a close relationship between the researcher and the developer forms over time. In our opinion, this professional relationship is crucial towards the success of a project and its long-term maintenance. However, this aspect that affects the development and maintenance cycles is often overlooked. What are the positive aspects of collaboration in the context of the digital humanities? What can we learn with the examination of two digital humanities projects that are collaborations between a humanities researcher and a developer? We will explore these questions in the following sections of this paper.

Collaboration in the Digital Humanities

The canonical dictionary definition of collaboration is the mutual engagement of participants in a coordinated effort to solve a problem together (Dictionary (version 2.3.0) 2019). Within the context of academic research, collaboration has two or more individuals working together to formally accomplish joint research objectives (Bruhn 1995; Hara et al 2003). The goals of academic collaboration in the humanities can vary from discipline to discipline, but the action of working together is becoming more common for several reasons (Siemens 2015). First, research questions are becoming more complex, larger, and in need of expertise available from other disciplines. Second, collaboration can increase the quality, depth, and scope of the research and collaborative teams can often achieve more than a single researcher since no one person has all the necessary skills and resources for a digital project (Quan-Haase et al 2014; Siemens, 2009, 2015; Siemens and Burr 2013). It is often seen as an efficient and effective way to achieve knowledge breakthroughs and address knowledge gaps (McGinn et al 2005; Siemens 2009). Finally, collaboration can provide an often-welcomed change from solitary work and a chance to learn new skills (Siemens 2015).

While there are many advantages to collaboration, there are also challenges that must be navigated to ensure project success and positive personal relationships. There can be conflicts and difficulties between disciplines due to differing academic languages and research methodology (Epton et al. 1983; Hara et al. 2003; Northcraft and Neale 1993; Pearson 1983). This can be made worse when collaboration team members have differing approaches to team work (Birnbaum 1979; Cunningham 2010; Fennel and Sandefur 1983; Hara et al. 2003). Limited opportunities exist for this type of training in the academy, so not everyone is well-versed in ways to collaborate (Amabile et al. 2001; Bennett and Kidwell 2001; Cuneo 2003; Newell and Swan 2000; Siemens 2015). This situation is often further complicated in the humanities when measuring individual contributions for academic reviews. There is a traditional emphasis on the solitary researcher (Quan-Haase, Suarez, and Brown 2014). This perspective is reinforced through graduate training where students are trained to be lone scholars and not generally seen to be collaborators and contributors to research projects when working as research assistants (Siemens et al. 2014). These challenges can be overcome with communication, coordination, and integration within the project (Cheng 1979; Martin 1997; Northcraft and Neale 1993; Siemens 2015).

In a nutshell, collaboration in the digital humanities brings together diverse and interdisciplinary talents to achieve a common goal. It is a place to pool intellectual resources, including skills and expertise (Siemens and the INKE Research Group 2015). However, systems are needed to maximize positive aspects of the collaboration (Hara et al. 2003; Kraut et al. 1987; Lawrence 2006; Newell and Swan 2000). The examination of a case study and associated projects provide insight into these systems.

Case Study

In the context of Iter Community, collaboration brings together a group of scholars with diverse backgrounds with experts in digital methods. Iter Community is a program of Iter, a not-for-profit organization incorporated in Canada and in the United States and developed in partnership with the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria. It is dedicated to facilitating and supporting communication, collaboration, and digital project consultation for research communities of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Consequently, Iter Community aspires to support scholarly communication and information sharing, provide an incubator for digital projects, and formerly offered website hosting and repository services (“Iter Community” 2019). This collaboration aims to help scholars studying the Middle Ages and the Renaissance answer their research questions with digital and computer-based methodologies.

Of particular note are two examples of collaborations between a humanities researcher and a developer. First, the GEA Project – Invisible Sienese Women Made Visible is an Iter project that reconstructs the history of the difficult times between the early 1500s and the 1560s as experienced through the lives of women (Brizio 2019). GEA focuses on their activities in the familial, social, and economic life of their natal and marital families—their role in the life of their children and relatives, in culture, in female artistic patronage, and also in the male political arena.

Second, a Database for Dramatic Extracts (DEx) is an online, searchable database of extracts transcribed from seventeenth-century manuscripts (Estill 2013 and 2019). As an Iter project, DEx also aims to provide information to textual editors, literary scholars, and cultural historians interested in theater history, audience reception, early modern print and manuscript culture, and the history of reading. This interoperability as a medium to facilitate and afford the exchange of information is an integral part of DEx, which influences how users carry out their intended work and the scholarly inquiries that DEx can help answer as a project.

The Importance of a Workplan

A workplan is part of the documentation created at the beginning of the collaboration and acts as a roadmap to follow for the duration of the online digital project. Not only will it keep the team organized, it also sets the scope of the collaboration, assigns resources, and ensures timely feedback from the external parties involved. The workplan ideally includes the goals to be achieved, and it also helps manage expectations of the stakeholders, managerial and team member levels. Creating and distributing a workplan will ensure that the researcher and the developer are on the same page regarding the project’s schedule and deliverables (Rodgers 2016). It is not unusual that during these early planning stages of digital online projects the researcher will present many questions to the developer, for example: What are the system requirements? How can I manage this online project? How do I get support? How can I add new features? The workplan should also explicitly indicate these answers and include details on the ways the software should be maintained beyond its early development stages and the responsibility for doing so.

The workplans for DEx and GEA were conceived differently, mostly because of the familiarity with digital methods and prior experience with online digital projects from each researcher. The researcher for DEx had experience with collaborations in digital online projects, whereas the researcher for GEA did not. As a result, the DEx workplan was developed collaboratively with the requirements and needs of the researcher as a starting point. Then we set specific milestones that needed to be met in specific timeframes. Constant meetings with the researcher facilitated the development process, for which the initial prototype was delivered before its anticipated date.

On the other hand, since the researcher was not as familiar with the technology and its possibilities, the initial workplan for GEA was developed solely by the developers. This workplan incorporated the computationally correct database models that made the first prototype unusable. The first iteration of the prototype used a complex database structure that required a complex set of user interfaces to enter and establish relationships between records. From the researcher’s perspective, the complexity of the database and the user interface were impractical. However, once we started collaborating positively, taking into account the requirements and needs of the researcher, we created a workplan for GEA based on milestones and software deliverables with a simplified database. In this project, our collaboration allowed us to understand the needs of the researcher, to understand how the data needed to be stored in the database, and to implement a workflow that can address the research questions from this dataset.

Thus, agreeing on a workplan is important as it can define the scope of the collaboration, assign duties to the researcher and developer, and define shared goals and outcomes. As with most collaborative projects, it is important to have clear objectives since the research can take a new direction as new research questions begin to surface, which is facilitated by the speed and convenience of digital methods in the digital humanities. These new research questions must be noted, as they constitute new directions for inquiry and possible avenues for future work. When the objectives outlined in the workplan are met and all the parties involved are satisfied with the overall outcome, the collaboration can be deemed successful.

Finding Common Interests for the Collaboration

The research carried out in the digital humanities using digital online projects is very interdisciplinary. While it is true that collaborations in the digital humanities are expected to be rewarding to both the developer and the researcher, it is important to identify their unique interests and expected benefits. What is the researcher gaining from the collaboration? What about the developer? The intersection points of their interests are the foundation for the collaboration, but their expectations might differ.

For example, in DEx the researcher was interested in creating a searchable index of annotated extracts from plays, whereas the developer was interested in creating a prototype that used a non-relational database and was sustainable over time. In GEA, the researcher was interested in creating a computational representation of the lineage between people, whereas the developer was interested in exploring models and abstraction layers to query these representations in the database. In both cases, the combined efforts afforded the creation of prototypes that served as proofs of concepts that satisfied the research interests of the researcher and the developer. The expectations from the developer were not explicitly stated in these two cases of collaboration, but they complemented the expectations from the researcher and contributed to the development of the online digital projects.

GEA and DEx were developed using Agile software development practices. Agile is a development methodology that advocates for adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continual improvement, and it encourages flexible responses to change. Specifically, we used Scrum: a framework that uses Agile practices for developing, delivering, and sustaining complex products. Scrum works very well with small teams who break their work into goals that can be completed within time-boxed iterations, called sprints. Each sprint was linked to a major component in the workplan of the online digital project and represented goals that needed to be achieved. For DEx we completed sprints for the XML parser, the frontend, the backend, and the search engine; whereas for GEA we had sprints for the database models, the backend, and the frontend of the project. The password-protected backend of GEA was the most labour-intensive component to develop in this online project since all the relationships between people needed to be represented. This also presents GEA as an interesting case from the developer’s perspective, since the password-protected backends in online digital projects are usually created at the end of the development process. The password-protected backends are only accessible to the researchers of the online digital project, and they allow the uploading, annotation, and linking of the source materials. Because of the limited audience and visibility of password-protected backends, most of the development time and effort are spent on the more visible front-facing components of the online digital project. However, in this case, the backend development was forefronted sooner in the process. Furthermore, the use of Agile development propelled the productive collaboration between the researcher and the developer matching their needs, interests, and abilities.

GEA presented an interesting case for the collaboration between disciplines, where adhering to practices from computer science created a model that was not suitable for the researcher in the humanities. In computer science, a database table has met third normal form standards if all the columns are functionally dependent only on a primary key. In the context of this paper it is not important to understand normalization, but that the developer proposed a database model that was too complex for the researcher’s needs. Normalization is desirable in a data structure since it reduces the duplication of data and ensures that all the references to records are valid. The normalized database in GEA ensured the referential integrity of the data, but it made the online project extremely complex: representing the relationships and lineage between persons required the researcher to enter and modify data in several tables, and this almost rendered the project unusable. The solution was to find a compromise in the collaboration, in which some data is duplicated in the records of the database but favours a more relaxed workflow that facilitates the creation and the modification of data. An argument could be raised about implementing user interfaces to accommodate the normalized database, but, in this case, we created a solution that works to fulfill the needs of the researcher. In this sense, the collaboration in this online project intersected the research of the humanist with the flexibility of the developer.

GEA and DEx present two cases where the interests of the researcher and the developer aligned quite well and complemented each other. What happens when this is not the case? A service model is often used instead of a collaboration. In the scope of a collaboration, a service-based model occurs when the researcher or the developer is viewed merely as an asset, and their contribution is not valued deeply. For example, a developer who is seen by the researcher as an entity who only produces code instead of an equal partner. In terms of achieving a successful collaboration in a digital online project, it is our opinion that a service-based model should be avoided: it devalues each contribution and hinders the overall progress in the online project. We see similar trends in the library world where there has been a move away from a service model towards total engagement with an outward focus on strong relationships and partnerships with faculty and others on campus to the benefit of the digital projects (Burress and Rowell 2017). There is a recognition that the library brings strengths to the relationship, including resources; collection, project management, and preservation expertise; and an interest in the research question (Cunningham 2010; Vandegrift and Varner 2013). As case studies have found in digital humanities/digital scholarship, collaborations thrive when the researcher and librarian—and, by extension, the developer—are all involved from the start when a project and its goals are initially defined and planned (Aasrsvold, Gonnerman, and Paul 2015; Barba and Perrin 2009; Burress and Rowell 2017; Currier, Mirza, and Downing 2017). Collaboration creates more innovative research, which also has more impact when each collaborator has an equal stake in the project and gets something out of it (Bradley 2012; Senseney, Koehl, and Nay 2019).

Communication Channels

The different communication channels used can be viewed as another strategy that supports the collaboration. Constant communication through meetings and dialogue can lead to continuous revisions and improvements in each milestone of the software. In our opinion, this regular and scheduled consultation leads towards more productive and efficient development cycles. In GEA and DEx, the openness towards communicating ideas and the flexibility in how they were implemented facilitated their deployment and the implementation of new features.

During development we didn’t use the communication channels that are used in software development (e.g., Slack, Github) with them. Instead, we used the channels that were more familiar to the researchers. Because of our different geographic locations, we only met once in person with the researchers when we were at the same academic conference. Thus, the communication channels we used for the collaboration were mostly video conferencing (Skype) and email. Each channel had its advantages and disadvantages, and we used them depending on what we wanted to achieve. For example, if describing an issue over email would take longer than 5 minutes, we scheduled a video conference and we used the “share screen” feature instead. This feature was useful to pinpoint issues that were difficult to replicate. However, email was especially useful for communicating lists of outstanding issues and bug fixes that needed to be addressed.

In the case of DEx, we also scheduled regular video conferencing meetings every two weeks, which aligned well with the duration of each development sprint. We found that setting these meetings in advance kept the researcher and the developer motivated and accountable, as they conveyed the notion that the development was moving forward. At the end of each meeting we defined items that needed to be completed in the current sprint. On the other hand, we did not schedule frequent video conferences with the researcher from GEA mostly because of the time zone differences between western Canada and Europe. As a result, most communication was carried out asynchronously over email. In both cases the commitment of the researcher and the developer towards constant communication drove the development of the online digital projects.

As these projects found, ongoing communication about requirements was necessary. In the case of DEx, the researcher late in the project articulated the need for a search engine. Because of the good communication patterns, this late requirement was solved by changing how the XML documents were ingested into the site. Similarly, GEA required a flexible data structure to accommodate the details for women in clergy. This presented an interesting scenario, since the developers were not familiar with the intricacies of religious communities. Communication and placing the researcher’s interests first was the solution for these conflicts.

Measuring Success

The fourth supporting structure is the measurement of success for digital projects, which is something that can be difficult to undertake. This degree of success can be quantified by the number of papers published, conferences attended, citation counts, or simply counting the visits to a public-facing server. In terms of qualitative measures, projects and publications are evaluated using a peer-review process. However, projects in the digital humanities usually deal with a very specialized domain and audience, which means that some of these measures might not accurately reflect the overall level of success of a collaboration.

These measures of success show some of the differences between developers and researchers. For developers, they typically have an eye towards long-term viability of tools, not merely does the tool answer the research question. As a result, one measure of success is the extended life of the project. Digital online projects can be abandoned during development, so a finished project could be considered successful in terms of its completion. Is a digital project ever really completed, meaning that no further development is needed? It is hard to provide an answer that satisfies all cases, since it deals mostly with the scope of online projects. Another important point to consider is that researchers and developers should agree on maintenance terms during the life of the project, which has been estimated to five years (Meneses et al. 2018), although the insights are probably useful for many years thereafter. This time frame and its assigned tasks should be addressed clearly at the beginning of the collaboration in the online project. It is also very appropriate and necessary to state how and when to conclude an online project (Arneil, Holmes, and Newton 2019).

A more accurate indicator of success is evaluating if the principal investigator was able to answer the research questions and achieve the initial goals (stated explicitly in the workplan). This is how we measured success for GEA and DEx. Another factor to consider in measuring the overall success of a collaboration is if the investigator is willing to continue using the online digital project and develop new features (assuming that there are new research questions that have surfaced and require changes in the software); or, alternatively, starting another collaborative investigation using the online project as a starting point. It can also be the case that the collaboration in the online digital project research leads to further research by other investigators. This has been another measure that we have used to measure the success of GEA and DEx, since they have been used to test the remote deployment of online digital projects in different software environments.


Digital online projects are envisioned and developed by scholars with different geographic locales, interests, and disciplinary boundaries. The range of subjects is also varied as each project brings together diverse areas of expertise. There are several tools that help support positive collaboration. In these cases with Iter Community, positive collaboration between scholars with diverse backgrounds and experts in digital methods is exhibited by successful implementation of the digital project, that is, a useful tool from the researcher’s perspective.

First, as these case examples show, a workplan developed in collaboration between the researcher and developer that outlines deliverables, deadlines, and responsibility will work to ensure that the project meets the research objectives of the researcher. The GEA project provides a cautionary tale of what might happen when a workplan is created only by the developer who may not fully understand the intricacies of the data and a researcher who is not as familiar with possibilities technologically. The initial product did not meet the needs of the researcher and the two parties needed to start over with a new workplan. Ultimately, the principal investigator’s familiarity with the capabilities and limitations of digital technologies and methods can make a clear difference and ultimately benefit the outset of the project.

Second, these examples also show the importance of developing the common interests of both the researcher and developer. Time must be taken to ensure that each party understands the context of the other. This can be difficult in these cases where the researcher might not possess understanding of the technical and the developer might not understand the data from a humanistic perspective. The project also needs to appeal to both the researcher and developer. The researcher must be able to answer their research question and the developer must have an interesting technical question to address. As noted above, a true collaboration sees each party as equal members, not one in service to another.

Third, the importance of communication cannot be overstated. The only way to work through disciplinary differences and develop and implement a work plan is through constant and regular communication. As these examples show, an initial face-to-face meeting can be useful for establishing the parameters of the project and easily answering questions that each party has of the other. This can then be supplemented by regular conference calls and emails. These communication channels serve to ensure accountability, keep the project on track, and address feature development.

Finally, understanding measures of success can support positive collaboration. It again relates to the importance of discussions between the researcher and developer at the start of the project. What does each want to achieve with the digital project? What are their respective goals? Is it merely to answer a specific research question? Or is it the creation of a tool that will live long term? The answer to these questions will influence the workplan and development cycle.

The digital humanities are at a turning point where we are able to digitize and analyze materials using computers with relative ease. The use of digital and computer-based methodologies can make these approaches seem innovative to researchers in the humanities, not necessarily because they are digital but because of the conclusions that can be reached. Using the data in the two collaborative projects that we have mentioned in this paper, examples can include making conclusions about the role of women in Sienna in the 1500s and inferring details about the reception of a play. In this sense, the positive collaboration in the digital humanities aims to magnify the contribution of researchers and streamline the development of digital online projects in the short term.


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