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What author order can (and cannot) tell us: Understanding contributorship

Part 2 of our series on developing a fair and accurate picture of academic contributions

Written by Lindsay Morton

Welcome back to the second in our three-part series on academic credit. In this post, we focus on identifying researchers’ specific contributions to a research project, and explore how those contributions are reflected on a published paper. Authorship is central to the reward system of science and directly impacts each researchers’ career prospects. Yet standards for allocating authorship are variable, and often opaque. What types of contributions merit inclusion on an author list? How are we to understand the contributions of each researcher who is included on the list?

Identifying specific author contributions

In the biological and medical sciences, the degree of public credit a researcher receives for a publication is based on their position within the author list. While the significance of author order varies across disciplines and cultures, traditionally, there are two highly valued and much-coveted positions: first author, credited with conceptualizing and executing the central parts of the study, and last author, occupying the most senior, supervisory position. That can be problematic, because it does not provide a consistent and fair way to acknowledge the essential contributions of midlist authors. An average author list cannot communicate, for example, who developed critical methods, collected the data, ran the analysis, or wrote the first draft. In some cases, an author list may also include honorary authors, either as an expression of esteem, in an attempt to leverage a famous name, or because the honorary author has asked to be included in all publications within their sphere.

The inadequacy of the author list as a vehicle for expressing author contribution is also evident in team science. As research becomes increasingly cross-disciplinary and complex, in many cases, it’s no longer possible for one person to lead and execute all aspects of a study. In team science, instead of organizing themselves hierarchically, researchers work together, with two or more equal partners taking on the responsibilities of a senior researcher within their specific areas of expertise, for example data collection and stewardship, statistics and design, coding, or methodological development. Our systems for allocating and representing academic credit have not kept pace with the ways researchers work today.

The importance and yet the ambiguity of the author list creates, at the very least, inaccurate and unfair perceptions about the contributions and capabilities of the researchers involved. It can also conceal bias and work to keep researchers from under-represented groups in midlist, junior roles. Because the allocation of credit is so central to how a research scientist is perceived, and to the future of their career, a fair and accurate representation of each author’s contribution is vital.

Solution: Tracking all author contributions with CRediT

CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) is a universal, community-developed open classification system that uses 14 different roles to describe the aspects of scientific authorship, from conceptualization to review and editing. Each author listed on a manuscript is assigned one or more taxonomic roles. Role assignments appear on the final published research article and are encoded into article meta-data where they can be harvested by databases and indexers.

The granularity of the CRediT taxonomy diminishes the importance of author order. For example, tenure applicants need not be evaluated on how many times they were listed as first author, but on their specific contributions to each work. The CRediT taxonomy also reinforces the author qualification guidelines by clearly highlighting instances of honorary authorship to authors at submission, giving them the opportunity to pause and consider the composition of their author list.

The CRediT taxonomy distinguishes itself from other, publisher- or discipline-specific author taxonomies in that it is both broadly applicable within the sciences and widely accepted, enabling it to establish norms and shared understanding across publishers, funders, and universities.

PLOS was part of the working group that originally developed and tested the CRediT taxonomy. When the system was finalized, PLOS transitioned from our previous, publisher-specific taxonomy to the new tool.

A meta-analysis of the CRediT taxonomy

CRediT has opened new avenues for meta-research, enabling scientists to better understand not only how each other contributed to the work, but to begin to identify and interpret patterns in contributorship that expose larger truths about the way science operates, and can point the way toward more efficient, robust and inclusive scientific practices. In the video below, we chat with Dr Cassidy Sugimoto and Dr Vincent Larivière about their recent study “Investigating the division of scientific labor using the Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT)” and discuss ideas for future studies.


Read more

Investigating the division of scientific labor using the Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT) 
Vincent Larivière, David Pontille, Cassidy R. Sugimoto 


More opportunities for authorship

As the CRediT taxonomy helps to illustrate, writing articles is just one small part of conducting research. In addition to properly allocating credit for traditional research articles and peer review, Open Science also offers new opportunities to surface, share, and receive credit for more of the research process, including both open data and open methods, such as Registered Reports, Lab and Study Protocols, Methods Research Articles, and linked code. Sharing these research outputs as stand-alone resources allows them to accumulate citations in their own right, independent of the main research article, and increases discoverability by creating more points of entry. At the same time, making research artifacts public enhances trust in related research articles. Over time, a pattern of openness can help to build a reputation for high-quality research, collaborative sharing, and leadership.

Coming up

In the next post in this series, we’ll discuss the importance of peer review, and how we can better acknowledge and reward the contributions peer reviewers make to published research. 

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