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Who did what? Clarifying author roles benefits researchers, publishers and students.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Scholarly scientific publishing has a lot of traditions that are not transparent to the reader such as peer review or the non-payment of authors. The existence of many authors on a single paper is also a bit of a mystery. Why are there so many? What did they all do? Why are they listed in that order?

On occasion, I’ve had first year students state that the presence of multiple authors (whom they assume to be the reviewers) is evidence of peer review. In other instances, students used to putting the items on their “Works Cited” page in alphabetical order by author have re-arranged the authors on an individual paper in order to put them in alphabetical order.

It doesn’t help that the scholarly community isn’t always clear on who should be included as an author on a paper, or in what order they should go. And it is usually impossible to tell, based on the paper, who did what.

A recent comment in Nature by Allen et al. explores the development of categories to help explain the role of each author. By surveying authors about their contributions to published papers, the authors hope to build on the basic categories used by some publishers (like PLOS).

Author roles outlined by Allen et al., 2014

In the article, the authors cite advances to authors and publishers. It would be helpful for the junior researcher who was author 8 of 15 to be able to clearly show what she did. It might help researchers find collaborators: If I want to use the methodology from a research article, it would be helpful to know who developed that methodology of the 10 authors. They also outline benefits to publishers, as greater clarity allows editors to spent less time clarify authorship and resolving disputes.

There are also many benefits to students and science teachers that weren’t mentioned. If each journal article listed the contributions of every author using a common set of descriptors, the nature of the scientific enterprise becomes much more transparent, and reading the scholarly scientific literature becomes a lesson in how science works, not just the topic at hand.

Students would no longer be under the impression any authors after the first one are the reviewers. When faculty assign a group project or lab, they can point to the scientific literature as the model for these assignments.

This initial pilot by Allen et al. only surveyed authors in the biomedical community, but they plan to expand this work into other disciplines. I’m looking forward to seeing these results.

Allen, L., Brand, A., Scott, J., Altman, M. and Hlava, H. (2014). Credit where credit is due. Nature, 508, 312-313. doi: 10.1038/508312a


Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:08 am 04/24/2014

    The idea is good, but several problems need to be overcome.

    One is that the most difficult part of many experiments is making the thing work practically. A Ph.D. student can spend years testing hundreds of conditions to eg. grow the stem cells succesfully. This is at risk of being under-evaluated. Who would want to do it if he is summed by ‘did methodology’ or ‘project administration’?

    Second, often senior faculty have a habit of putting their name on any publication, regardless of the input. What will prevent them from doing the same on this small categories?

    Link to this
  2. 2. bswoger 2:44 pm 04/24/2014


    I think you are correct in your criticisms. I suppose the question would be, is this better (for anyone) that what we have now. For example, if you were author 5/10, would some information about your contribution be better than none? I don’t know the answer to that question…

    Link to this
  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:39 am 04/25/2014

    Yes, this proposal is probably better than no evaluation.

    However, autorship in papers acts as the main ‘currency’ in academia, how researchers are evaluated. I saw young PIs cheering and throwing parties because their Nature paper was accepted, opening them career prospects. This results in complications.

    For example, some labs do risky projects by sharing the authorship ‘risk’ and ‘reward’. People undertake risky projects, under unofficial agreement that if some projects fail, losers get authorships in successful projects. I think it is fair, because research is more effective when everybody focuses on one thing, instead of moving between projects, and researchers rarely can predict success or failure of their projects (otherwise, who would start losing projects?). If researchers are strictly evaluated for real contribution paper by paper, people will simply not want to do risky and visionary studies.

    Yes, the core problem is unhealthy focus of academia on publications and citations only, plus a bias towards publishing positive results, but they are still the current modus operandi.

    Link to this

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