Researchers are judged almost entirely as individuals. Publication lists, experiences in a CV, or personal references - the fact is that grant evaluation or recruitment committees rarely look beyond the applicant’s own achievements for deciding who to fund or hire.
In spite of this, science is a team venture. Delve into a research paper and findings therein are something “we observed”. Look on a research group’s website and you’ll find a constellation of different skills and backgrounds. So why is this team spirit not properly represented when research is put into print?
Individualism has long been championed in academic culture. Pioneers from the 19th and 20th century penned publications as solo authors, whilst single researchers are recognised for their contributions to knowledge by the Nobel Prize. Yet, the reality of the stand-alone scientist is disappearing: research is performed by groups, across borders and disciplines, and individual contributions within teams need to be recognised to support collaboration in a hypercompetitive world.
The ‘innocent’ order of authors
In my eyes, authorship lists are one of research’s great scourges. Ranking the ‘importance’ of one scientist over another during the publicising of scientific endeavour is both cruel and nonsensical. Clearly, some researchers put more into a study than others, but when did the research community learn how to (arbitrarily) decide whether one researcher should be first author and another should be second? The ‘innocent’ task of placing scientists’ names in a specific order does not speak of their relative importance in bringing the publication into existence, but can have a profound impact on their career trajectory.
Below is a riddle; decide which author should claim first spot in a hypothetical publication:
- A postdoc who performed vital pilot experiments and wrote the first draft of the manuscript, but has since joined a new research group and is actively pursuing an academic career;
- A doctoral candidate who built on the pilot experiments and co-wrote the final version of the manuscript.
The answer is irrelevant, because there are no rules to decide who goes first. Likewise, joint-first authorships do not always solve the problem as authors can be left frustrated that their efforts did not secure first authorship just for themselves.
The culture surrounding authorship lists propagates toxic individualism and bad research practices, kills cooperation, and has birthed the concept of gift authorship. It needs to go, so that enterprising researchers with a broad range of skills can have their labours recognised and their career progression strengthened.
Acknowledging investigators’ work
A while ago, ‘Contributor Roles Taxonomy’, or CRediT, stepped onto the scene, and many have likely used it during submission of their own manuscripts. The principle is simple: authors need to itemise their contributions to scholarly outputs using one of fourteen ‘contributor roles’.
With CRediT, the specific efforts of researchers can be showcased with more transparency when seeking grants or faculty positions further into their career and visualized in an accessible format. Whilst defining the extent of contribution in these roles involves some subjectivity, the ranking of other contributor roles provides a better picture of the overall involvement of a given scientist. Essentially, having fourteen criteria with which to judge contribution is considerably better than just one: the order in which names appear.
The science behind author contributions
Resolving author contributions can also help researchers understand what their strengths are and what new skills they should develop. This will be necessary in plotting their own academic career, as shown by meta-research performed on the contribution statements from over seventy thousand publications. The analysis revealed three researcher archetypes, leader, specialised, and supporting, and found that careers may be shorter for those possessing the ‘supporting’ archetype.
The study also revealed that female authors were less likely to hold the ‘leader’ status at all career stages assessed. In addition to prejudice and bias, gender inequality exists in practices like the delegation of specific tasks to specific researchers whilst performing a project (‘glass walls’). As a potential transformation, one could use colour coding on author contribution matrices to demonstrate relative contributions across the gender dimension (or for other characteristics that can have a discriminatory impact), thus highlighting whether research groups provide equal opportunities during the realization and execution of their work.
Uprooting archaic attitudes
The next step is to eliminate the idea of ‘author order’ altogether. From my own experience, certain politics explain the authorship sequence for a publication in the Biological Sciences, whilst author lists are more frequently alphabetical in Physics-specialist journals. This is partially explained by author lists that can comprise thousands of people, but clearly this aspect of publishing culture is not as central in different disciplines. Switching to alphabetical author lists would further encourage readers and reviewers to determine contributions based on CRediT, and the specific roles that scientists assumed.
The authorship list is a tradition in the same light as journal impact factors and will be difficult to shift from initially. Furthermore, contributor roles taxonomy may offer transparency and fairness, yet subjectivity and nepotism can still exist. But if we are to promote the team ethic and diversity needed for interdisciplinary research in the future, contributions need to be codified and acknowledged. Otherwise, academia risks losing talented minds whose skills and hard work are dis-credited by being second author.