The globalization of research, combined with improvements in technology, are resulting in ever larger collaborations among researchers. The average number of authors per paper is now around four (though in disciplines such as physics, the numbers can run into the hundreds or even thousands), but typically only the lead author gets full credit — for example, when it comes to the faculty review and promotion process. Other contributors who have provided essential support – from carrying out the actual research to collecting, analyzing, and managing the data – are at best acknowledged, at worst completely uncredited. A group of funders, publishers, institutions, and others, led by Amy Brand (VP Academic & Research Relations and VP North America for Digital Science) and Liz Allen (Head of Evaluation for the Wellcome Trust) is now working on a possible way to address this inequity through the creation of a contributor role taxonomy. Amy, who was previously Assistant Provost for Faculty Appointments and Information at Harvard University, has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about this new initiative for the Scholarly Kitchen.
What was the initial spur for developing a contributor taxonomy – did you have an ‘aha’ moment or was it an idea that developed over time?
Definitely more of an “aha” moment. I was reviewing a biostatistician’s tenure dossier a few years back and was struck by the different pictures of his scholarship as portrayed in the assessments of his peers, who argued that he was an outstanding scientist and the leading methodologist in his field, as compared with his publication record, which included exclusively multi-authored articles on which he was almost always a middle author (as opposed to first or last author). I had seen this pattern before and knew that this would be a difficult case for the presidential tenure committee to work though. That is, I understood that he was middle author only because he was the methodological lead and not the conceptual lead on the majority of his publications. I knew committee members would understand this as well after reading the peer letters. But I also knew that it would be difficult for them to discount the publication record, because they were trained to expect tenure-worthy professors to be in “leading author” position on most of their journal publications.
So I found myself wishing that there was a way for publishers to capture and display structured information about who contributed what to multi-authored works, instead of, or in addition to, the list of author names. Since I was very involved in the ORCID initiative at the time, and had also worked at CrossRef for many years, it occurred to me that if it was possible to create a controlled vocabulary of contribution tags, then those tags could be included as additional metadata in association with the DOI and, ultimately, with an individual’s ORCID.
What problem or problems do you hope to solve by creating such a taxonomy?
Several. First and foremost, this effort addresses the pressing need for a more fine-grained and transparent system of research and publication credit. If it is successful, there will be far fewer author disputes, and fewer disincentives for sharing data, for example. So it could positively influence both the collaborative culture of the lab, and academic incentive structures more generally.
Because our bibliographic conventions for representing authorship effectively lag behind the semantic capabilities of the web, they persist in obscuring the contributions of those engaged in collaborative research. The ways in which we apportion publication credit today are highly subjective and open to abuse, since name order in author lists has no consistent meaning. Yet who gets credit for research and discovery has a huge impact on people’s lives; it affects career advancement and tenure, and the transparency and integrity of the scholarly record too.
Who have you been working with, and what progress have you made to date?
The contributorship effort has been highly collaborative from the start. We are working closely with the Wellcome Trust evaluation team, and have some financial support from Wellcome as well. Publishers including Nature, Elsevier, PLOS, AAAS, and APS have been involved at various stages in the project. We also had some help early on from Access Innovations. And individuals from several institutions, including Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Columbia, NIH and NSF have been engaged as well. We are currently collaborating with both CASRAI (the Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information) and NISO in the development of the taxonomy.
What challenges do you still need to overcome?
We now have a core working group being facilitated by CASRAI, focused on fleshing out the taxonomy itself. We had previously tested a taxonomy with 14 roles and it was fairly well received, but we’ve known all along that we would need to refine it in consultation with a broader group of stakeholders, and that’s what we’re doing now.
Once we reach consensus on a set of roles and descriptions that works across the sciences, we will need to develop a selection of implementation models along with best practice guidelines, and then engage several partners in piloting the taxonomy.
I think the biggest challenge, though, will be cultural. Getting senior researchers to change how they think about authorship and credit is no small thing.
What are your goals for the next 12-18 months?
Our main goals for the coming year are to publish the taxonomy and launch a series of pilot implementations. We are planning a workshop in conjunction with the fall 2014 CNI meeting to preview our model and gain pilot commitments from members of the stakeholder community.
What changes would you like to see in how scholarly research is communicated and rewarded if this initiative is successful? Who will be the main beneficiaries?
I am thinking about younger scholars, and those research team members that tend to play non-traditional authorship roles such as coding and data curation.
I am hopeful that, with this initiative, we will ultimately take some of the politics out of authorship and credit because it will be transparently clear who contributed what to a publication. The senior person in the lab who obtained the funding, for example, can be tagged as having obtained the funding for the project without bumping a more junior person who did most of the research and writing – and who needs the publication credit for career advancement — out of prominence on an author list. Similarly, the lead methodologist can be called out as such and not simply buried in the middle of a long author list.
What sort of support are you looking for from the scholarly communications industry – how can we help?
Get involved! We are happy to include interested parties in the reviewer circle for this project, and we’ll be looking for implementation partners soon.
Last but not least, do you have a name for this project yet?
No catchy name or even a website yet, but stay tuned.