Authorship, trust and open science

4 minute read

The publish or perish crisis has led to a situation where, quite understandably, being named on a paper is more important than the actual contribution. As a result, authorship on scientific papers is arguably one of the most pathetic lows in academia, from squabbles to open conflict, pressure, politics and nepotism. But what does authorship represent; who deserves to be an author?


From Defining the Role of Authors and Contributors, International Committee of Medical Journal Editors:

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.

And those who meet fewer than all 4 of the above criteria for authorship should not be listed as authors, but they should be acknowledged.

Well, that’s a rather strict definition of authorship. Whether one agrees with it or one has another set of rules to grant authorship, I think that every project should clearly state contribution requirements in advance.

Position in the author list

We are all equal, but some are more equal than others.

The last/corresponding/senior author is supposedly the person that has had the initial intellectual input, and initiated and supervised the project; in practice, it’s often the person who acquired funding (interestingly, the ICMJE specifically notes that examples of activities that alone (without other contributions) do not qualify a contributor for authorship are acquisition of funding).

The first author is the researcher who supposedly did most of the work and wrote most of the manuscript. When research becomes more and more multidisciplinary, it becomes less clear and more subjective what most of the work really means. How do we quantify work and input, anyway?

All the other ones are middle authors, except possibly for the second author, who is the one who has done second most of the work and the penultimate author, who is the second most senior author. The rest are middle middle authors. I have not heard of anyone further salami-slicing the author position/importance, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear so.

Author contributions

If author contributions, as required by some journals, are to be recorded at the time of submission, using limited and restrictive descriptions, I am afraid that they will hardly reflect real contributions and will only serve a self-fulfilling prophecy.

From this open review by Rob Patro, regarding an interesting experiment by Titus Brown, granting every committer on github authorship.

If we are interested in the long-term viability and quality of such software, we must adopt a system of credit that values and recognizes a variety of different types of contribution.

Well, I think a better, fairer and open credit system is welcome beyond contributions to software. Shouldn’t we have github-like repositories for all our scientific projects, carefully recording ideas, data, analyses, outcomes, code, interpretation, manuscripts, … that we could then make use of the report and demonstrate effective contributions?

To be honest, while I use github private and public repositories (1, 2) extensively (for grant writing, for specific analyses in the frame of collaborations, for software and teaching, for manuscripts), I hardly have a single repository for the whole scientific process (that’s not how things work, in practice). In the future, I will, for the sake of transparency, more systematically and explicitly define rules for contributions as part of the repository, and ask contributors to assess and document their respective contributions.

Trust and Open Science

Last week, I attended a seminar about Open scholarship and links to academic integrity, reward & recognition by Professor Tom Cochrane. The presentation and questions thereafter touched upon a wide range of topics related to Open Science at large. One comment that struck a chord was the importance of trust at every level in Science. Often, at higher managerial levels, major directions might (or might not) be followed if trust and confidence exists between two partners, even if their exchange is very brief and not necessarily backed-up by hard facts. These senior academics have evolved in an environment where they have learned to trust (or distrust) their peers through reading scientific literature, meeting and listening to their peers, collaborating with each other, etc.

Today, we have a wonderful mechanism in place to build this network of trusted peers: it’s called Open Science. What better reason to trust a scientist who openly sharing ideas, data, software, code, reviews, papers etc.

I have realised that a fundamental reason that I value Open Science so much is that it is, in my eyes, a more objective way to identify trustworthy individuals in this scientific and academic eco-system. And conversely, my desire to be as open as possible in my research and promote Open Science through my research outputs is a manifestation of this desire to expose my work and myself as a trustworthy and honest scientist.

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