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Beyond authorship?

17 Apr, 2014

who did what

Is it time for greater clarity and recognition of who did what in the publication of research? Jo Scott and Liz Allen in the Wellcome Trust Evaluation Team discuss the potential of a new contributor “taxonomy”…

Original research papers with one author – particularly in the life sciences – are increasingly rare.  We know that there are many contributors to research and associated published outputs, but it’s not easy to tell who did what, and author position is an imperfect representation of contribution. Inflation of author numbers on papers, partly driven by a combination of national research assessment exercises and the emergence of big, collaborative and ‘team’ science, has also contributed to this ambiguity. Greater clarity around the different and varied contributions to research outputs could have benefits for all the stakeholders in research.

The recent San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment emphasised a commitment to move away from Journal Impact Factor as a measure of research quality. Initiatives that would bring greater clarity to authorship  would provide a new basis upon which to recognise researcher contribution and research use and re-use.  

What are the benefits of greater clarity?  

For researchers, having the ability to better describe what they contributed to a piece of research would remove the opacity caused by expanding author lists. Roles that have not traditionally qualified as “authorship” could be recognised and researchers could draw attention to their specific contributions to published work to demonstrate their skills and potential. We feel this would be of particular benefit to people who are starting out in a research career, where the opportunities to be a ‘key’ author on a paper can prove elusive.

2200500024_e93db99b61_zFor funding agencies, better information around the previous contributions of individual grant applicants would aid the funding decision-making process. Greater visibility of research contributions would also help those looking for the most apt peer reviewers. For institutions, understanding a researcher’s unique contribution is fundamental to the academic appointment and promotion process. And for publishers, greater transparency in contributor assignment would help to reduce the volume of authorship disputes being managed by journal editors.

A new approach

Following a workshop in 2012, a small group of journal editors joined forces with Harvard University (led by Amy Brand, who is now at Digital Science) and the Wellcome Trust Evaluation Team to develop a simple contributor-role taxonomy to test with researchers. We wanted to develop something that could be used when researchers are thinking about submitting a paper for publication that would yield meta-data on the contributions, to complement – or perhaps even replace – an author list.  

A 14-role taxonomy was developed and feedback was sought from a sample of corresponding authors of recent work published in PLOS, Nature Publishing Group and Elsevier journals, Science and eLife. Overall feedback on the concept of enabling better definition of contributor roles and the test taxonomy was positive.  We are mindful that any new approach must not add to researchers’ burdens in submitting and publishing work nor bring about unintended, negative consequences.

We will be engaging with a broader cross-section of the research community to evolve the taxonomy in response to the feedback received to date. Over the next year we will try to ascertain the value of greater specificity in contributor roles to the research ecosystem and consider models of implementation.

You can find the full article ‘Credit where credit’s due‘ in Nature. 

Image credit: “Question mark sign” by Colin Kinner CC-BY, on Flickr.

 

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