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I just got an argument with a friend about whether deciphering the Voynich manuscript (a mysterious book dated in the 15th century, written in an unknown script) should be deemed a "project". He told me that, since there is no compelling evidence that the text is meaningful (i.e., either being a natural language or an encrypted code), and the outcome is not guaranteed, it cannot be called a "project". He told me that the objective of a project must be absolutely clear; and I argue that deciphering the book itself is the objective. And the risk is that, the book MAY a deliberate hoax, in which case the deciphering effort is doom to fail. I want to know if such an effort, which may involve many mathematicians, cryptographers, computer experts, can be called a "project" or not.

(I study math, and I have little idea about engineering.)

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    +1. This is a good question because it's about foundational project management concepts, and also appears to be about an actual problem you're facing. – Todd A. Jacobs Dec 12 '14 at 21:12
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TL;DR it is a project.

Let's take a look at the definitions of the "project".

PRINCE2:

A Project is a temporary organization that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to an agreed Business Case.

PMI:

A project can be defined as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. Projects are different from other ongoing operations in an organization, because unlike operations, projects have a definite beginning and an end - they have a limited duration.

Now, in your situation, you have a temporary organization (all those mathematicians and experts will not be involved for undetermined duration, I suppose) that is created for the purpose of delivering a product (decrypted manuscript). This endeavor has a definite beginning (you start with the current knowledge of the manuscript in its encrypted form) and an end (the goal is to have a meaningful decrypted text).

He told me that the objective of a project must be absolutely clear; and I argue that deciphering the book itself is the objective.

You are both right. The objective must be clear, and it is.

the outcome is not guaranteed

It is almost never guaranteed in any project. Even when throwing out a trash you may find that your dumpster is gone. That does not prevent it being a project of its own.

And the risk is that, the book MAY a deliberate hoax, in which case the deciphering effort is doom to fail.

A big part of the project management is managing risks. It is good to start with at least one that is clearly identified. You should plan resources and activities accordingly.

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TL;DR

Research and science projects are certainly "projects" from a project management perspective. Your friend owes you the socially-appropriate beverage of your choice if you two were betting on the issue.

Defining a Project

Wikipedia defines a project as follows:

In contemporary business and science a project is defined as a collaborative enterprise, involving research or design, that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim.

Projects can be further defined as temporary rather than permanent social systems or work systems that are constituted by teams within or across organizations to accomplish particular tasks under time constraints.

So long as your research is goal-oriented and structured, as opposed to flailing around in a haphazard way, then it would certainly seem to fit a widely-accepted definition of a project.

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