Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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First thing we do, let's kill all the authors. On subverting an outmoded tradition (Force2015 talk)

Posted: Mar 01, 2015 17:03;
Last Modified: Oct 01, 2015 15:10


This is a rough approximation (with some esprit d’escalier) of my speaking script from my talk at the “Credit where Credit is Due”: session at Force2015, January 13, 2015. We were asked to be controversial, so I tried to oblige.



I’m not sure that this paper is going to introduce anything new to the discussion of authorship issues, perhaps just raise some reminders couched in the terms and methodology of a discipline that is only beginning to grapple with problems natural scientists have had to deal with for years. I’m also not going to solve anything, but rather walk through the origins of the problem and propose some potential avenues for change. But I’m also not going to be discussing tweaks or improvements to the system. Instead, I’m going to be arguing that our current author attribution system for scholarly and scientific publications is fundamentally broken and that the only route forward is sabotage.

Would we create scientific authors if they didn’t already exist?

The question I’d like to begin with is the following:

“If we didn’t have the concept of the scientific and scholarly author, would we create it?”

The answer, I think, is that we would not.

The International Council of Medical Journal Editors’ definition of authorship vs. a traditional dictionary definition

This is because what we currently describe as a scientific author actually looks nothing like almost anything else we would describe using the term “author”—as you can see if we compare the definition of scientific authorship as described by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors and a relatively standard definition of regular authorship taken from an online dictionary:

A typical dictionary definition: Author, n., A writer of a book, article, or document.

ICMJE definition The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

* Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND

* Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND

* Final approval of the version to be published; AND

* Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.


Contributors who meet fewer than all 4 of the above criteria for authorship should not be listed as authors, but they should be acknowledged. Examples of activities that alone (without other contributions) do not qualify a contributor for authorship are acquisition of funding; general supervision of a research group or general administrative support; and writing assistance, technical editing, language editing, and proofreading. Those whose contributions do not justify authorship may be acknowledged individually or together as a group under a single heading (e.g. “Clinical Investigators” or “Participating Investigators”), and their contributions should be specified (e.g., “served as scientific advisors,” “critically reviewed the study proposal,” “collected data,” “provided and cared for study patients”, “participated in writing or technical editing of the manuscript”). (Emphasis added).

In other words, while in the world outside scholarly and scientific communication, we normally think of the author as the person who actually does the writing, in the the world of research communication, it is entirely possible to have writers who are not authors and authors who are not writers. And that, it seems to me, means we are fairly deep down the rabbit hole.

The nature of the problem

There has been a lot of excellent work why our definition of authorship in research communication is the way it is, by Michel Foucault, by Roger Chartier, Mario Biagioli, Mark Rose, and others (see especially Biagioli and Galison, eds., Scientific Authorship: Credit and Intellectual Property in Science). They have tied it to issues of authority, early intellectual property rights, aesthetics, and economics.

I like to think, however, that the problem really comes down to four main issues:

The inertia of words

The first major problem with scientific authorship, in my view at least, is that our practical definition is changing faster than our term’s connotative implications.

That is to say, while it is entirely possible for us to adapt and bend the term “author” to match our current scientific practice—even if that scientific practice results in such abnormal beasts as the “writer-who-is-not-an-author” and the “author-who-is-not-a-writer”—we cannot as easily let go of our term’s original connotations. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we still believe that authors should be writers, even if our heads and contemporary practice tell us that this is simply neither reasonable nor practical for our biggest projects in the age of Big Science.

We can see that this is so, indeed, if we read through the rest of the ICMJE definition, to get to the bit where they discuss how their definition of authorship should not be abused in order to unreasonably exclude participants who deserve credit for authorship by denying them opportunities to participate in the writing and editing of the article:

These authorship criteria are intended to reserve the status of authorship for those who deserve credit and can take responsibility for the work. The criteria are not intended for use as a means to disqualify colleagues from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them the opportunity to meet criterion #s 2 or 3. Therefore, all individuals who meet the first criterion should have the opportunity to participate in the review, drafting, and final approval of the manuscript. (Emphasis added).

There are two things significant about this proviso. The first is the nature of the abuse that the ICMJE is attempting to prevent: the case of somebody being denied authorship credit on the basis of the second and third criteria (i.e. because they were prevented from particiating in the drafting of the article or were not given a veto over its contents) despite the fact that they met the requirements of the first and fourth criteria (i.e. made “substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work” and agreed to be held “accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved”). In other words, the ICMJE is worried that “the writing” might be used as a technicality to deny authorship to those who made otherwise major contributions to the science on which this writing reports.

But the second thing about this proviso is that it doesn’t protect against the opposite eventuality—that is to say that somebody who did participate in “the writing” might be unfairly denied authorship credit because they were prevented from making substantial contributions to the design or performance of the research or because they were not allowed to claim responsibility for the work. In other words, the ICMJE does not (for obvious reasons) think that preventing somebody from “designing the experiment” might be used as a technicality to deny somebody scientific credit. Or again in other words: while the ICMJE is prepared to accept that somebody could be deserving of authorship if they were unfairly denied access to the writing and editing, they don’t think the same thing about somebody whose only participation in the article was, well, “authorship” in the sense that everybody but academics understand the word. In scientific authorship, writing is a technicality in a way that participation in the actual experimental design and conduct is not.

The conservatism of aesthetics

This brings me to the second cause of our problems with the concept in research communication: the conservative nature of aesthetics. Because the connotations of the word are so strong, even if our practice has bent the definition almost completely out of shape, we also have a strong aesthetic feeling for where authorship attribution has to go in a scientific article: on the “byline,” between the title and the abstract or introduction. Indeed, a surprising amount of criticism of (and resistance to) “author inflation” rests on the simple idea that it looks ridiculous if you have eight hundred or a thousand authors between the title and the abstract of a scientific article—something that has affected even our opening Keynote speaker, Chris Lintott, in his attempts to accurately credit the profession and citizen-scientists who participated in his experiments with crowdsourcing.

Economic utility

The third reason why it has proven so difficult to let go of the idea that a scientific author must be a “writer” in some way has to do with economic utility. As the great historians of this topic have demonstrated, the decline in anonymous authorship came about in large part through the efforts of booksellers and publishers to create a mechanism for asserting copyright. If a work is anonymous, then it belongs to nobody (or everybody). If it has an author, then this author can alienate their rights to a publisher in exchange for money and their identity can be used subsequently both to brand the works in question (i.e. “another play from the great Shakespeare”) and identify fraudulent reproductions.

Although the situation in scholarship is not exactly analogous, the basic idea still pertains: naming the author of scientific works allows us to use such work as a mechanism for calculating economic value and reward and assigning scientific responsibility. In the specific case of academic researchers, authorship become something could count and use to make comparisons between individual researchers (your worth, of course, rises with the number and prestigiousness of your articles) and something you could use to certify against fraudulent science.


And finally, there is the issue of scalability. There have always been epistemological differences between creative/literary and research/scientific authorship. The one is an act of creation (you create rather than discover poems), while the other is an act of discovery (good scientists discover rather than create their results). But the importance of these differences was obscured when both types of authors collaborated in similar sized groups (i.e. of one or two at most). In the age of single author science and scholarship, it was easy to see an equivalence between “doing the science” and “being the writer of the paper” since both activities were usually performed by the same person and because individual experiments could be completely reported in at most a few individual papers.

But this equivalence does not scale. As experiments got bigger and more complex, as projects began to involve many more experiments and participants, and as individual papers increasingly began to report on smaller fragments of the total scientific output of a project, this rough equivalence between “person who wrote the paper” and “people who did the science” became increasingly untenable and you end up with problems like that the ICMJE proviso quoted above is trying to head off—the case of participants in a project being denied access to the byline of an article solely because they weren’t given a change to wrangle a few words in the article reporting on their work.

Why words can hurt us

The point of all this is to show that the real cause of the “authorship crisis” is not the ever-increasing number of authors, but the fact that we are using the wrong word to describe what these people are and identify the quality we are trying to capture. And, unfortunately, that we are using a word that brings with it a lot of connotative and conceptual baggage that we simply cannot easily get rid of. While the term “author” (with all its connotative history) makes sense as a way of describing creative writers, for whom the actual act of composition is their primary activity, it simply does not work as a way of describing scientific authorship, for whom the act of composition is, ultimately, secondary to the research that precedes it. Poetry does not exist unless it is expressed in some form and its expression is in some sense at least coincidental with its composition (you can’t think of a poem without thinking of the words you will use to tell others about it). But while science ultimately requires communication, this communication cannot occur without prior activity: you can (and indeed probably should) do scientific research before you have decided on the precise words you are going to use to report on your results.

(And as a brief aside here, it is worth noting that science is not the only field of endeavour in which writing is secondary: the same is true, for example, in the legal or policy worlds where the actual writing is less important than the goals behind it, except that, in contrast to scientific credit systems, we don’t have any problem in these worlds in distinguishing between those who develop and those who merely draft legal bills or policy documents—there is no rule in parliament or congress that says that MPs or Senators can only be listed as the authors of a bill if they participated in its drafting).

So what to do?

This brings us to the problem of what to do. If the term “author” is bringing with it too strong a set of connotations to allow us to accurately capture what we want to capture (which is presumably participation in science rather than participation in typing), what can we do to change the current situation?

Accept that we don’t actually care who wrote the article

The first thing we need to do is accept that our current concept of scientific authorship is both an abuse of the term and brings with it far too much unhelpful baggage. That is to say, we need to recognise that we don’t actually care all that much about who wrote the scientific articles we read—beyond perhaps in the limited sense of making sure that those who did write out the results are rewarded for that writing. What we are actually trying to capture with our current credit/reward system is not participation in writing, but participation in communicated science.

This recognition is important, if for nothing else, in that it should free us of our aesthetic objections to long author lists. As long as we think that scientific authorship is actually about writing, then aesthetic objections to long authorship lists remain at least somewhat valid: it is indeed absurd to think that 800 people could possibly be responsible for the composition of a 6 page physics article. But if we stop thinking that what we are trying to capture is who wrote the article instead of who did the science reported on in the article, then the aesthetic objection becomes far less significant: if the people being credited are not actually authors, then we can stop thinking of their names as belonging on the byline; or we can stop thinking that the “byline” on a scientific article is in any way analogous to the byline on a newspaper article or novel.

Recognise that “authorship” is really just a special form of acknowledgement

Once we accept that scientific authorship systems are not actually about who wrote the article, it becomes easier to understand the next conceptual adjustment we need to make: recognising that “authorship” in a scientific sense is really just a special form of acknowledgement—or, in more concrete terms, that the “byline” in an article is really just an arbitrary, privileged, “above the fold” extension of the acknowledgements section.

You can see this if you compare the case of scientific authorship against that of poetry. Both books of poetry and scientific articles name authors and, commonly, have an acknowledgements section. The difference, however, is that where there is a clear epistemological difference between those mentioned in the byline and acknowledgements section in a book of poetry, there is (despite many attempts to develop one) no such clear demarcation in a scientific article. In a book of poetry, one will often find the author acknowledging the help of librarians who aided them in finding specific reference works, friends who hosted them while they were writing, thank yous to their agents and fellow poets for support, and so on. While these are all arguably people who helped the poet do his or her work, there is still a pretty clear distinction between helping a poet compose and actually composing yourself: nobody thinks the bartender at the poet’s favorite watering hole is actually an acknowledged coauthor of the poetry itself (well, not seriously, at least).

The people acknowledged in a scientific article, however, are, for the most part, those specifically responsible for conducting the science upon which the article is reporting: the people who did the calculations, who designed or ran the apparatus, who built the detectors, and so on. These are generally not people who had a purely social connection to the scientific work in the article but instead were directly responsible for its results. Our hypothetical poet would probably still have been able to compose poetry without the assistance of his or her agent. A scientific “author” would have nothing to write about if it were not for the people who helped make the discoveries in the first place.

This means, in turn, that the authorship-acknowledgements distinction in a scientific article is different from the similarly-named distinction in literary contexts. In contrast to the quite concrete distinction between the “person who composed the work” and “people who assisted the composer” we find in a literary work, in a scientific work, the distinction between “named as author” and “acknowledged as helper” is far more arbitrary, despite attempts such as those of the ICMJE to come up with discriminators. Instead of being able to make a clear binary distinction between those who have primary responsibility for a piece of science and those who merely assisted (as we are, in many ways, able to do in the case of literary authorship), what we are really doing in the case of scientific authors is attempting to determine the point on a scale of participation at which we decide to stop rewarding those who participated in our research. People to the left of the line we draw get their names put in the byline and are able to use the article on their CVs; people to the right of it get our best wishes, but little else, from their participation.

Understand that this conceptual problem is not amenable to tinkering

Since the problem with scientific authorship is conceptual—i.e. we are using the wrong criteria in attempting to determine credit—it is also not amenable to tinkering around the edges. Once you accept that an author might be somebody who doesn’t write and that a writer might not be an author, you are far beyond the power of any definitional tweak to save your system. Since the problem is the fact that we maintain an arbitrary distinction between those acknowledged on the “byline” and those acknowledged in the “acknowledgements,” reforms that improve the granularity of either without addressing the fundamental problem that we make the distinction at all is going to fail. Such reforms are attempts at refining the accounting for responsibility for “the article,” when what we really need is a system that recognises both that “the article” is only a second subcomponent of the scientific endeavour and that it is participation in reported science, not participation in the reporting of science, that our reward systems should be attempting to capture.

In fact, the only solution, in the end, is to stop using “authorship” as the primary measure of scientific participation. In the age of Big Science, the article is a better indication of the success of a project than the success of any individual within that project. We will only solve the issue of credit when we stop privileging authorship over participation.

Realise that there is no opportunity for external change

Although the problem is not amenable to tinkering, it is also true that it is not amenable to fiat. Because so much currently rides on authorship credit, we will find it almost certainly impossible to change formally in a top-down fashion. As advocates of Open Access discovered in the early years, change only comes when there is a critical mass that is comfortable with the innovation, but a critical mass only develops when the change itself is already understood to work within the current system. As various people have pointed out, Academia is very much a prestige economy and prestige markers are extremely resistant to change: scientists may want to publish in Open Access journals, but they need to publish in prestigious ones—and prestige seems, in large measure, to be a function of time and familiarity.

This is where the “sabotage” comes in. If you can’t change a system externally, then the only option left is to change it from within. And if the problem that we are facing with our current authorship systems is that they force us to make arbitrary distinctions among participants, then the solution is to refuse to make those distinctions. Since scientific authorship measures the wrong thing and excludes people who should be credited as participants solely on the relatively arbitrary grounds of whether they participated in the drafting of the article, then the solution is to stop using “writing” as a criterion for authorship: in other words, move the line that distinguishes acknowledgements above the fold from those below to put all of the people whose participation made the science possible above. It is only when the byline becomes indistinguishable from the acknowledgements section that the system will have been modified to the point where we can begin to work on more granular systems of identifying (and rewarding) actual scientific participation. Because, as Syndrome argues in the The Incredibles, “when everyone’s super, no one is!”


“Sabotage” is a strong word, but we are actually facing a pretty fundamental problem with our current attribution system. While equating “authorship” with “scientific productivity” made rough sense in the age of single-scientist experiments (and still does, to a large extent, in the current age of single scholar humanities research), the concept simply does not scale. It is difficult to apply to even moderately large collaborative teams and it is simply impossible to apply to the gigantic teams responsible for today’s biggest projects.

The reason for this, however, is that the concept is simply wrong. When we count authorship on scientific papers as part of our evaluation of an individual researcher, we are actually counting the wrong thing. We do not, on the whole, actually care that much whether a given scientist wrote the papers involved. What we are really attempting to capture is how productive and effective that scientist is as a participant in the science that is reflected in those papers—i.e. in the communication and discovery of communicable results. This does not mean that the article itself is irrelevant to science—you can’t have science without the communication of results. But it does mean that authorship of papers (authorship in the sense of “writing”) is no longer an adequate metric of scientific participation. The PI who conceptualised the project, the researchers who designed the equipment or methods, the people who calculated and reported the results—all of these are necessary to the production of good science whether or not they participated in actually typing or editing the articles in which this science is reported. Systems that fail to recognise this, such as that of the ICMJE with its fetishisation of, in essence, typing, are ultimately not going to solve a fundamental problem that has to do with the very term we use to describe the metric.

The answer to my question at the beginning is that we would not create the concept of the scientific author as a credit metric if it did not already exist. Now that it is causing serious trouble, it is time to kill it off.


More on Aauthors and Aalphabetical placement

Posted: Jul 26, 2014 16:07;
Last Modified: Jul 26, 2014 16:07


In an earlier post today, I discussed some of the economic implications of having a last name beginning early in the alphabet in disciplines that traditionally order the authors on multi-author papers alphabetically.

I’ve since looked up the original paper (Einav, Liran, and Leeat Yariv. 2006. “What’s in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 20 (1): 175–88). This is more startling than I thought.

First of all, from the authors’ own description:

In this paper, we focus on the effects of surname initials on professional outcomes in the academic labor market for economists.

We begin our analysis with data on faculty in all top 35 U.S. economics departments. Faculty with earlier surname initials are significantly more likely to receive tenure at top ten economics departments, are significantly more likely to become fellows of the Econometric Society, and, to a lesser extent, are more likely to receive the Clark Medal and the Nobel Prize. These statistically significant differences remain the same even after we control for country of origin, ethnicity, religion or departmental fixed effects. All these effects gradually fade as we increase the sample to include our entire set of top 35 departments.

We suspect the “alphabetical discrimination” reported in this paper is linked to the norm in the economics profession prescribing alphabetical ordering of credits on coauthored publications. As a test, we replicate our analysis for faculty in the top 35 U.S. psychology departments, for which coauthorships are not normatively ordered alphabetically. We find no relationship between alphabetical placement and tenure status in psychology.

We then discuss the extent to which the effects of alphabetical placement are internalized by potential authors in their choices of the number of coauthors as well as in their willingness to follow the alphabetical ordering norm. We find that the distribution of authors’ surnames in single-authored, double-authored and triple-authored papers does not differ significantly. Nonetheless, authors with surname initials that are placed later in the alphabet are significantly less likely to participate in four- and five-author projects. Furthermore, such authors are also more likely to deviate from the accepted norm, and to write papers in which credits do not follow the alphabetical ordering.

Here are the core figures from the paper, comparing top Economics departments (alphabetical ordering) and top Psychology departments (non-alphabetical ordering):

Figure showing distribution of last initials in Top Economic departments.

Figure showing distribution of last initials in Top Psychology departments.

As Figure 1, shows, Economic departments have a definite tendency towards having tenured members with early last names: about 50% of the tenured faculty in top 5 departments have names beginning with the letters from A-G, and by the time you get to O you’ve accounted for about 70% of the Faculty (Tip for economists planning on having affairs at economics conferences: use “John/Jane Doe” rather than “John/Jane Smith”—I’m guessing you’re likely to pull partners from better schools).

In Psychology, on the other hand, you’re probably at “K,” before you get to 50% of the tenured faculty. (The 50% mark in both sets of departments for untenured faculty comes in at about L, suggesting there isn’t such a bias in the case of pre-tenure hires—perhaps because they publish less before they are hired?)

So all in all, I guess this just means that Paul S. Krugman’s career is even more impressive than it looks: a job at Princeton and a Nobel prize and a last name beginning with “K”? What are the odds. Makes you wonder what’s wrong with Ben S. Bernanke: a last name beginning with “B” and he only makes chairman of the Fed?

Maybe somebody needs to do a study of the influence on academic careers of S. as a middle initial.


A is for Aardvark and author. The economic implications of having a last name with an early letter in the alphabet

Posted: Jul 26, 2014 12:07;
Last Modified: Jul 26, 2014 18:07


In many disciplines, when more than one researcher contributes to a paper, the authors are listed in terms of the relative contribution: the first author is assumed to have done the most work, the second the second most, and so on until the last position, which is often as prestigious as first.

In other disciplines, however, the tradition is to order author names alphabetically.

This can be unfair to authors whose names come later in the alphabet, because citation conventions for multiple author contributions usually spell out the names of only the first two or three authors.

But it turns out it can also have career and financial implications. As Marusic, Bosnjak, et al. (see?) report:

Economists calculated that with each letter closer to the front of the alphabet there was an increase in the probability to be tenured at top economy departments and receive professional recognition, as well as a significant increase of 0.41% in estimated salary return for an additional article with alphabetical authorship and a 3.3% chance that 1% lower ranked alphabet letter would increase total and annual publication output in mainstream economics journals (From Marusic, Ana, Lana Bosnjak, and Ana Jeroncic. 2011. “A Systematic Review of Research on the Meaning, Ethics and Practices of Authorship across Scholarly Disciplines.” PLoS ONE 6 (9). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023477).).

On a positive note, it does give us new insults and methods of praise: “he’s so dumb he couldn’t get hired at Princeton even if his name began with double A!” Or “Rarer than a Zwierski in the Ivy league.”

See my followup: More on Aauthors and Aalphabetical placement


The credit line

Posted: Jul 13, 2014 13:07;
Last Modified: Aug 16, 2014 13:08


I think it is time to get rid of authorship altogether, at least in research communication.


What is an author

Outside of academia, the definition of authorship is quite striaghtforward. As the OED puts it, an author is “the writer of a book or other work.” Things get a little complicated with ghost-writers (is a ghost-written book “by” the person who commissioned it or the person who actually composed it?). But on the whole, there isn’t much room for ambiguity. Authors are people who write.

Within academia, however, things are more complicated. There you can have ““authors” who don’t write anything”: and writers who aren’t authors.

This is because in academia, the writing is only part of a larger research process: articles and books report on research projects that take place in the laboratory or library but they are not the research project themselves. A single research project will often lead to a number of articles and (occasionally) books and the people who end up writing an individual article or book can represent only a small sub-set of the entire team that was responsible for working on the project as a whole. An individual article can involve the essential intellectual contributions of a far larger number of people than those actually responsible for drafting its text.

Why “authorship” matters

Despite this ambiguity, however, academics devote a lot of attention to determining authorship, and, especially, distinguishing between authorship and other forms of “contribution.”

This is because, being “an author” (as opposed to “a contributor”) carries with it real rewards. “Authorship” is the primary basis at universities for determining promotion, bonuses, and relative status. A researcher who receives a lot of authorship credits is going to do better (in terms of pay, rank, and position) than a researcher who is frequently acknowledged as a collaborator, even if that collaboration is as or more essential to the overall success of the project as a whole.

Authors who don’t write and writers who don’t author

Over the years, this disparity in reward has lead to some authorship scandals, paticularly in the medical sciences: people buying and selling “authorship” credit, authors who subsequently deny any responsibility for papers that are shown to be incorrect, researchers who do work being denied authorship credit.

It has also led to increasingly rigorous definitions of what authorship means in a research communication. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, for example, has come up with a fairly clear set of criteria for authorship credit:

The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

* Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND

* Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND

* Final approval of the version to be published; AND

* Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

In addition to being accountable for the parts of the work he or she has done, an author should be able to identify which co-authors are responsible for specific other parts of the work. In addition, authors should have confidence in the integrity of the contributions of their co-authors.

All those designated as authors should meet all four criteria for authorship, and all who meet the four criteria should be identified as authors. Those who do not meet all four criteria should be acknowledged—see Section II.A.3 below. These authorship criteria are intended to reserve the status of authorship for those who deserve credit and can take responsibility for the work.

Disambiguating “credit” and “responsibility”

The problem with this definition, and indeed with the author/collaborator distinction as a whole, lies in that last sentence: “These authorship criteria are intended to reserve the status of authorship for those who deserve credit and can take responsibility for the work.” That is to say, this definition, like the author/collaborator distinction in the first place, is attempting to do too much: provide credit and identify responsibility. “Credit” on a modern research project in particular needs to be distributed far more widely than simply to those who can take responsibilty for its reports. From the people who secure the funding to the people who code the tools, modern research projects often make use of essential contributions from a large number of people—far more than ever end up drawing conclusions or reporting on results in writing. As long as the primary method of crediting research activity remains the by-line of the research article, it is essential that these people as well receive credit for their work similar to that received by the “authors” of the reports themselves.

This is particularly true for the growing class of adjunct and para-researchers in contemporary universities: these researchers, who are usually as qualified and well-trained as the principal investigators, can easily end up in a kind of researchers no man’s land: working on many research projects but too early in the pipeline and not high enough up in the hierarchy to receive authorship credit.

Indeed, in one sense, “authorship” is itself, just a contribution: projects need somebody to analyse and write up their results as surely as they need somebody to code their instruments. While authorship is the last step in the research cycle, it is not necessarily more important than all of the preceding steps, and, indeed, could not have taken place unless at least some of those preceding steps had occured: somebody needed to frame the project in such a way that it could be funded and ensure that the lab receives the resources it needs; somebody had to implement the protocols or design the software and routines; somebody had to acquire and process the data, and so on.

Challenging outdated assumptions

In fact, I would argue that our struggles about the definition of “authorship” in a research context are in fact evidence that the concept itself is outmoded. In the days when most projects were concevied of and carried out by a single person who then wrote up the reports by himself (pronoun being used advisedly), the idea of assigning credit for research to an “author” (in the traditional sense of “the writer of a book or other work”) made sense—though there are enough examples of lab assistants (usually women) not receiving credit for essential work even from those days to make one wonder.

Now that few projects are conceived of an executed in this way, however, the entire privileging of “authorship” (however defined) makes much less sense. It remains important to identify the people who bear intellectual responsibility for the argument and conclusions of a given research communication; but it does not seem more important to me to identify the people who bear intellectual responsibility for the particular set of conclusions as being more important than all those others without whose contributions the “authors” would have nothing to conclude about. In the modern research world, “authorship” (like “writing,” but also like “getting funding” or “developing the algorithm” or “doing the coding”) is really just one kind of contribution credit.

Changing the byline to the credit line

In my view, the way to address this problem is to get rid of the “author”/“contributor” distinction altogether. While it is important to continue to identify the people who have intellectual responsibility for the presentation and conclusions of a given piece of research communication, especially in cases of research fraud, it does not seem at all appropriate to me to maintain the vast distinction in credit that comes with the “author”/“contributor” distinction. If authors are really just a particular kind of contributor to the project as a whole, then it seems to me that we can acknowledge their contributions (and responsibility) just as easily in the contributor list as on the byline. Or, perhaps better said, that we could just as easily eliminate the distinction altogether and credit all contributors on the byline.

In fact, I think we should change our understanding of the “byline” altogether. If modern definitions of research authorship run into trouble because they attempt to use the byline for two things (assigning credit and identifying a particular kind of responsibility), an approach that saw the byline as simply the “credit line” and saw the attribution of specific credit as something that could be handled by a note would disambiguate these two functions and provide a far fairer (and more reliable) attribution of responsibility than the current system.

How would this work?

This is really two questions:

  1. how would projects assign credit and responsbility on papers (i.e. order of names, definitions of responsibilities)
  2. how could a “creditline” system replace a “byline” system in actual publications

For the first of these, I suspect the answer would, at least initially, depend on the researchers and disciplines. There are currently few standards and different disciplinary customs regarding the attribution and place of authors on the byline (e.g. alphabetical, from greatest to least responsibility, and so on). Likewise, there are no agreed upon terms for describing individual types of responsibility. Journals, such as Science, that include breakdowns of responsibility tend to do this in a free-form narrative.

I don’t see this changing under a credit-line system. Research teams would still be faced with the problem of ordering credit and it seems unlikely to me that the current places of highest prestige would change very much. Instead of first and last “author” we would now speak of “first and last contributor” as being the places of highest prestige, but the problem of who goes where would remain very much something individual research teams would still need to solve.

For the second question, how such a system could be implemented, I suspect not much is required. The difference between the current system and this proposal is not actually that great: we need definitions of authorship in academia because “authorship” is no longer about who writes things. All that is needed is for journals to begin inviting research projects to adopt a system in which the identities of all essential contributors are credited in the “creditline” and their contributions defined in a “responsibilities” note.


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