As science becomes more collaborative and more complex, there is a growing need to be more granular in the assignment of credit and work recognition to scholars. When researchers publish the results of their work, acknowledgement of contribution is normally done by attaching their name to a scholarly article as “author,” with the first author normally the primary contributor. This system of credit worked well enough in an environment when there were only a few authors on a paper. However, we have increasingly seen papers authored by teams of people numbering in the dozens or even hundreds. What does it mean to be one of a hundred authors? How can anyone outside the team know what any person on the list did to contribute to the effort of producing that result?
When author lists are that long, the list is frequently shortened in citations and elsewhere to just the first author when referencing an article—with the rest being consigned to the “et al.” in the citation—so credit is often assigned alphabetically rather than by level of contribution to the project. If, as I expect, science is going to continue to grow more collaborative, these problems will only expand.
Last week, an editorial in Nature highlighted the problem of the proliferating number of authors on papers. This an issue for the authors, who can receive short shrift for their contributions (or alternatively the appearance of a greater contribution than actually occurred), and also a concern for grant funders in reviewing application proposals and for university administrators who need to assess the scholars for promotion and tenure.
In 2012, a symposium in 2012 held at Harvard University, supported by the Wellcome Trust, brought together a diverse group of science editors, publishers, scholars ,and others to begin a discussion on alternative contributorship and attribution models. The meeting identified a number of challenges related to the current state of attribution, including variances in attribution across disciplines, the growth in co-authorship, a general lack of clarity regarding “authorship,” the ambiguity of roles in co-authorship, and the challenges of measuring output based on the current system.
The report from that meeting included a variety of recommendations. At the time, both ORCID and FundRef were just getting off the ground and were identified as critical components of an improved attribution system. Subsequent growth of both systems has shown that they will greatly improve the ability to track and assess in an automated fashion the scholarly output of researchers. The meeting report further suggested the generation of a taxonomy of creator roles and proposed a next phase that would seek to develop and test that taxonomy.
The follow-up work on developing a pilot taxonomy was undertaken by a small team led by Liz Allen (Wellcome Trust), Amy Brand (Digital Science), Jo Scott (Wellcome Turst), Micah Altman (MIT) and Marjorie Hlava (Access Innovations). After establishing a test taxonomy, the group undertook an online survey to test the author role definitions they developed. The results of the survey, described in the Nature Commentary, noted that of the 230 corresponding authors that responded to the survey, “82% of respondents reported that using the more-structured taxonomy of contributor roles presented to them was at least ‘the same’ as (37%) or ‘better’ (45%) in terms of accuracy than how the author contributions to their recently published paper had actually been recorded.”
Additional work on the authorship roles taxonomy is certainly needed, since a relatively small survey couldn’t capture the diversity and needs of all of scholarly communications. A system could be developed that improves attribution to better satisfy a larger percentage of the research community. Consideration will need to be made about how publishers and editors will incorporate this new taxonomy in their existing publisher workflows. Finally, the practical questions of who will assign contributor roles in the submission process will need to be worked out.
Further development work on the proposed taxonomy and the business processes that surround it is being considered as a joint effort by Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information (CASRAI) and NISO. The effort would include greater outreach and engagement with publishers, administrators, funding bodies, and more researchers. A second workshop sponsored by the Wellcome Trust on contributor roles is planned for the third quarter of 2014; but full details are not yet available.
In an increasingly complex research world, clearly identifying what role the various contributors had in that process is important. Each contributor should be appropriately credited and receive due recognition for their level and type of contribution. The community could benefit from carefully considering and applying more robust definitions for what being an “author” means in a scholarly context. The challenge will be to create a system that isn’t overly complex and whose benefits will over-ride any additional efforts of implementation.