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Roll Credits: Sometimes the Authorship Byline Isn’t Enough. Guest Blog by Michael Molla and Tim Gardner.

Concept: Michael Molla (1) and Tim Gardner (2)
Writer: M. Molla
Editor: T. Gardner
Readers: Jeff Hasty (3) Jeremiah Faith (4)

(1) Research Associate, Biomedical Engineering, Boston University
(2) Assistant Professor, Biomedical Engineering, Boston University
(3) Associate Professor, Department of Bioengineering, University of California, San Diego
(4) Ph.D. Candidate, Bioinformatics Program, Boston University

Authorship is the “currency” of science. It is not simply a matter of ego. The inclusion or exclusion of names is a serious issue with ramifications for careers and funding. However, the contributions implied by authorship assignments are often unclear to the reader — especially for the middle authors. The recent additions of contribution statements by PLoS journals and PNAS are a step in the right direction, but lack sufficient detail and academic value.

In the current system, the only job explicitly described by the author list is that of “author”. In general, authorship is not just writing, but the entire multi-faceted research process. Important contributions might be made by wet-lab scientists, technicians, statisticians, theorists, computational biologists, and others. The author list is opaque to these distinctions.

The confusion is increased in the case of interdisciplinary research. The need for experts in each discipline multiplies the length of the contributor list. Published work with dozens of authors is common; over 100 authors is not unheard-of. Disciplines and laboratories may even have conflicting customs as to what constitutes authorship.

More critically, the assignment of authorship has a real impact on the effective execution of research. Middle authorship is often dismissed by readers or employers as insignificant. Thus collaborations are impeded because scientists are more concerned about their position on the paper than about solving research questions. Young scientists may not contribute adequate time or resources to a collaborative effort because they won’t gain a first or last authorship. They’d rather work on their own first- author paper.

There is a better system, and it’s already in use in the film industry — a credit list. Each person who contributed to a movie has a specific credit describing his or her contribution. If one’s contribution fills more than one role, that person’s name can appear more than once. In science, the “first author” position has, over time, come to mean something analogous to a film’s “director”. The “last author” position is usually filled by a job roughly similar to “producer”. But a film also has actors, special-effects artists, stunt people, etc. A would-be movie mogul conveys a much clearer description of her role on a project with an “associate producer” credit on a major film, for example, than a young scientist does with her “third author” status on a major paper.

The contribution statements of PNAS and PLoS are a good start, but authorship is still a predicate for describing one’s contribution to the work. Other contributions are relegated to an acknowledgment, which carries virtually no material value. Moreover, the current contribution statements are uneven and not necessarily informative.

What we are proposing is a detailed, standardized and trackable contribution statement; a statement that would be given equal credence as the author byline. A set of job-based contributions to the research process would be a great deal easier to understand on a person’s C.V., and would make it easier to understand the process by which a particular piece of research came to be.

Such a research credit system would have huge benefits for one’s career prospects; and it might encourage more effective collaborations. Moreover, these credits could easily be tracked by scientist or project in a database akin to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). It could provide an alternative to the ever-so-important citation factors as a means of assessing one’s scientific impact. And maybe one day there will even be an Academy Awards of Science.

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