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).

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