A Blog Around The Clock

Cannot. Resist. Funny. Titles. Sorry.

But seriously now, the question of authorship on scientific papers is an important question. For centuries, every paper was a single-author paper. Moreover, each was thousands of pages long and leather-bound. But now, when science has become such a collaborative enterprise and single-author papers are becoming a rarity, when a 12-author paper turns no heads and 100-author papers are showing up more and more, it has become necessary to put some order in the question of authorship.

Different scientific areas have different traditions. In one discipline your contribution to the work would place you at the first author spot, in another at the last spot. Who can make heads and tails out of it all? And what about all those people who are middle-authors? Are they not worthy of getting a job?

Now that everyone is exploring alternatives to Impact Factors of journals, some are focusing on a metric for evaluating individual papers, while others are trying to figure out how to measure contributions of individual people. Both are important! A good measure of the impact of a paper is needed for the progress of science (and to historians of science). A good measure of the impact of people is needed for making sound career decisions: who gets a post-doc where, who gets a job, promotion and tenure, who gets lecture invitations and prizes.

Setting aside the possibilities of including contributions other than paper authorship (e.g., teaching, writing reviews and editorials, science popularization, books, lectures, political activity/advisory, expert witness role in courts, administrative duties, peer-reviewing, blogging, vigorous and high-quality activity online, e.g., in comments on articles published on platforms that allow interactivity, such as PLoS ONE, PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, PLoS Hub for Clinical Trials, etc.) and narrowing it down to just authorship on peer-reviewed research articles, it is obvious that the ambiguous system in place right now is not coming even close to what is needed for a fair evaluation of individuals engaged in the scientific endeavors.

As the authorship system affects so many people personally, in terms of their careers, it is no surprise that the discussion of this topic can get quite heated. And that is aside from the fact that some people still adhere to the silly notion that authorship has something to do with the typing of words of the final article (just see the hot exchanges in the comments on this post and this post if you don’t believe me). Authoring is creating. Or contributing to a creation of something new, regardless of the verbal description of that creation that must come at the end of the process (and can be done by hired writing professional, unless he/she is on strike right now).

Some journals require more detailed descriptions for each author’s contribution to the work. That is definitely a move in the right direction, but is not yet perfect.

Now, there is a new proposal that, at first reading, sounds ridiculous but if you stop and read it again and think about it should make you reconsider – a credit list. Yes, just like in the movies, when the credits roll at the end. Each person is listed, some people more than once, and each person’s contribution is very well defined. Everyone knows exactly what a “producer” does, what the “director” does and what the “2nd camera assistant” means. Look at the Oscars – they give awards for music composition, animation, special effects, writing, acting, directing, and all the possible roles in what it takes to make a movie.

How is science different? Someone is good at getting money, another one at having creative ideas, another at experimental design, another has a great “touch” with the animals or pipetters, while another is brilliant with statistics or making beautiful graphs. Why not reward each contribution in its own right?

Make your comments here.


  1. #1 Chad
    November 6, 2007

    From my experience in the zoology department of a big 10 university I have noticed that the faculty there believe authorship to be a privilege that is earned by significant involvement in the planning and execution of an experiment and, to a further extent, the defense of the paper. My recent move to a different university?s department of medicine threw me for loop because it seems everyone even remotely involved in the planning or execution of an experiment feels entitled to be an author when the paper is published. While it would be nice to get my name on a bunch of papers, I personally believe my former situation to be much more honest and keeping in the tradition of research.

  2. #2 Janne
    November 7, 2007

    For it to work you’d need two things: a strictly defined set of “roles” to play; and a generally agreed definition on what kind of work is needed for that role. The movie industry has both, enforced by unions and studios alike – both of whom have an interest in having the system as well defined as possible.

    If not, there’s a risk you end up with the “more credits = more involved = better” heuristic. people dividing up their work into as small units as possible just to score more mentions in the credit list.

    In my last paper I could have taken credit both for the flower arrangements and the catering in addition to having been project barrista, equipment procurer, programmer, proofreader, concept creator, writer, graphical designer, illustrator, photographer, system admin, numerical analyst and cleaning lord (male cleaning lady).

    Effectively you’d have three, perhaps four, fairly well-defined roles as exemplified by the paper in the link: concept, writer, editor, perhaps “worker” for the actual doing-of-things (coding, pipetting, what have you). Then, unless you enforce it somehow, you will end up with a grab-bag of ill-defined roles that effectively are conduits for the same kind of loose credit assignment as the mid-list authors often are today. And unless you enforce the content, everybody who’s even been in the same room as a draft of the paper could be credited as “editor” or “reader” if it’s politically expedient to have their name on the paper.

    It’s a good idea, just to make clear who’s the actual main author, and who, if any, is the lab director and not directly connected to the actual work. But it doesn’t really do anything to solve the proliferating credit assignment problem.

  3. #3 seslifull
    November 15, 2009

    If not, there’s a risk you end up with the “more credits = more involved = better” heuristic. people dividing up their work into as small units as possible just to score more mentions in the credit list.

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