Defining authorship: A taxonomy to assign contributor roles in multi-author papers
With digitization and open access being the order of the day, science is becoming increasingly collaborative in nature. Single-author publications are rare these days; author numbers on papers are increasing by the day, and it’s no longer surprising to see as many as 50 or even 100 authors on multi-author papers. Since 2011, even 1000-author papers have been indexed by Thomson Reuters.
However, the individual contribution of each author in a multi-author paper remains unclear. To begin with, there is no uniform structure or process in place on who should be included as an author on a paper, or in what order they should go in the list. Moreover, reading the paper does not enable us to understand the role that each author has played in the research. The acknowledgements and citations section aren’t of much help either in figuring out who did what: which author was responsible for the methodology, who did the ideation, who collected data, or who conducted the experiments.
A recent article in Nature has come up with a possible solution: with the help of a 'taxonomy', manuscript-submission software could enable researchers to assign contributor roles in pre-decided categories during the process of developing and publishing a paper. The authors of this article have conducted an online survey with published authors to understand the nature of their contributions to a paper. The survey was a test of whether authors' contributions could be classified using a 14-role taxonomy. The role descriptions are as follows:
Source: Allen et al., 2014
The survey was sent to corresponding authors of work published in reputed journals, and they were asked to indicate the contribution of each author of their article according to the roles in the taxonomy, and to comment on whether the taxonomy was comprehensive; whether any significant role descriptors were missing; how using the taxonomy compares with current author-contribution assignment; and specifically, how easy or difficult it was to use.
More than 85% found the taxonomy easy to use and felt that it covered all the roles of contributors to their paper. Furthermore, 82% of respondents reported that using the more-structured taxonomy of contributor roles presented to them was at least 'the same' as (37%) or 'better than' (45%) anything that exists in terms of accuracy. Based on this understanding, the authors of the present study plan to work with various organizations over the next few months to develop the taxonomy further.
The creation of such a taxonomy would help authors in several ways. Rather than having study contributors as just a number 6 or number 8 in a 20-author paper, the taxonomy would clarify the exact way that each has contributed to the study. This will be of help during the grant application process or when seeking an academic appointment. It will be particularly beneficial for junior researchers, as people would know precisely how they have contributed, resulting in more opportunities for collaborations for them.
The scientific community will also find the taxonomy-based role-assigning useful. They will be able to identify specific skills and contributions of each author, which would help scientists and researchers find collaborators more easily. Also, if someone wishes to use the methodology from a research article, it would be helpful to know which of the authors on the list has developed that methodology.
Funding agencies will be able to make more well-informed decisions. Publishers will also stand to benefit from the taxonomy as it will save editors’ valuable time. Editors will spend less time in clarifying authorship and resolving disputes as there will be greater clarity and transparency.
The taxonomy will facilitate learning for students as well. If each journal article lists the contributions of every author using a common set of parameters, the nature of the scientific enterprise will become much more transparent. Thus, while reading scientific literature, students will be able to learn not only about the topic at hand, but will also understand how collaborative science works. This will provide greater exposure for them early on in their career and provide a clearer understanding of the roles they can play when they start writing research papers.