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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.

Discussion
  1. As Molla and Gardner point out – it’s not just that researchers get a raw deal when they are not ‘first’ or ‘last’ author, it’s deeper and more insidious. Biomedical research is minutely and complexly regulated by the system, which it has produced itself, a self-perpetuating, positive (sic) feedback. The regulation is acted out through a well-barricaded,scientific/research culture. Many junior and senior scientists alike, acknowledge it is clearly in a local minimum.

    The movie metaphor is interesting; it helps us to imagine a different world, but changing labels may not be enough. Close your eyes and you can hear Harvard faculty committees declaring that while Megan, is, “well, very very good,” she is only associate producer on all her papers. Can she really produce herself, or ultimately direct?

    The system of biological research might easily adapt to any new rules despite intentions of a fair-promotion and a fair-funding paradise. We risk putting into place formalizations which are not much more than short lived nods to fairness.

    I see two challenges. One is that we have to produce initial motivation to share glory, directed to those we predict will have the most influence (either through numbers or other means) and, the second is to produce an ontology of contribution which is most robust to initial abuse. Getting it right (or even getting it slightly better), might require something like dynamical studies of the feedback of any ‘rules’ put into place and how they might evolve; maybe we can guide policy formation by learning from biological systems.

  2. Nature, Cell, Science, et al; please take note of articles like this. The Contributorship that BMJ uses is getting closer to the model proposed here.
    The BMJ proposal (http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/315/7110/696) has many comments which are broadly supportive. As Molla and Gardner comment, the one thing that can make contributorship or a credit list useful to anyone is for it to mean something on a CV. Equally it will make it much easier to identify the person that did the bit of the work I want to include in my own research. If this is searchable and standardised, then all the better.

  3. There is another thread of excellent comments on this post started on Blog Around the Clock by Bora Zivkovic ‘Coturnix’. Some common themes with those comments here.

    In particular I strongly support the notion of the need for an ontology of roles. Without it you get two general problems: (1) too little resolution of roles leading to the current situation where everyone seems to contribute to just about everything. For example, see the contribution statement of this article in JAMA . Or (2) the roles lack consistent meaning, leading to more confusion and little value.

    The question is how to get this started? Clearly some visionary editors and directors at BMJ [article], JAMA [article], PLoS [article], PNAS and other journals have recognized this problem for a decade. The challenges is how to agree on principles and propagate it to journals, authors, employers, tenure committees and such.

    One possibility is to set up a shadow system, perhaps sponsored by a few of the well-respected journals, that would provide a contribution ontology and a database where authors could begin to add their explicit contributions. Call is the IScDB (Internet Scientist Database). (Someone better register that web address before it’s taken!) All stakeholders can participate in the ontology building. And as it catches on, more and more journals can simply latch on to it and ultimately make it a publication requirement.

  4. I was wondering what the rules/regulations are around authorship for a person that was deeply involved in the pre-, intra- and post-research study and then left the organization for another job.? Is that person supposed to be or entitled to be an author on subsequent articles related to the orginal research study that this person made significant contributions to? Thanks for any input.

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