The problem with describing author contribution

Did you ever read the author contribution box on a paper you have contributed to with horror? Did you not realize you were hardly a part of the study, that someone else is claiming the idea, the analysis, or all the writing? What went wrong? The project was so much fun, such teamwork, such discovery, bit by bit, resulting in a manuscript that went through months of rewriting. Then when boiled down into a few categories of contribution, it turns out the other party really did nearly everything, according to them.

What went wrong? I see several sources of confusion. Each person involved in a study will be much more aware of their own contribution than of that made by others. This may particularly be a problem if the work is a result of teams at two different universities. Since these pieces are often filled in at the last minute, they may not even be considered worthy of discussion.

But let’s get one thing straight first off: what does it take to be an author on a study? This could be a big topic, but let’s make it a small one. You have to have done something to contribute to the study. How much varies. It used to be the technicians, often women, were not authors, though they may have done all the experimental work. I remember having this explained to me as an undergraduate when I interviewed for a job at Michigan’s medical campus. The male professor told me when I asked that the technicians got acknowledged and that was all they wanted. I decided not to work in that lab. So, for authorship you have to conceive of the study, impact it in some way, analyze data, write it up, or somehow make it better. You may do this and not be an author, but to be an author you have to actually contribute to the study. Being in the lab, or providing general funding is not enough, though teaching someone to do the techniques they need for a study should count.

But let’s get back to those author contribution boxes that are becoming more and more common. PNAS in an editorial in 2004 by Nicholas Cozzarelli, “strongly encourages” specification of author contributions. He suggests that author contribution categories might be: “designed research, performed research, contributed new reagents or analytic tools, analyzed data, or wrote the paper.” These are suggestions, but they are what we see in many papers now.

Besides the problem of each person seeing their own contribution more clearly than other people’s contributions, there is the problem of definition for every category. It would be tedious to list all the possibilities, but there are a few systematic areas of differing perspective. What if a student plans out a study, brings it to others who go over it carefully, ending up in a redesign? Is that designed by one or more? The answer depends on how important the changes were, often a judgement call.

How about the writing? What if a student writes the paper, but it is repeatedly commented and revised by others? Does that count as also writing? Usually the more senior members of a team do the revising and commenting and the more junior members bring first drafts of experiments, analyses, and writing. There may also be a power difference. How to balance all this?

I’m unconvinced that those author contribution boxes are ever accurate. In ones I have been involved in they have been variously grossly inaccurate, over generous, over stingy, or accurate but uselessly vague. How can you really break out what members of a collaborating team did exactly? If you list contributions, you should be sure to get input from everyone, ideally by asking each person what they contributed, not sending a pre-made list with inaccuracies that develop a life of their own. Keep notes so you can document your contributions and remember to stick up for the weakest team member that might get forgotten.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Collaboration, Ethics, Publishing your work and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The problem with describing author contribution

  1. This is not an unsolvable problem. Movies do this all the time. But movie credits changed over time; compare credits in films of the 1930s or 1940s to today. Ensuring accurate credit has, I think, became easier because production teams got larger and more complicated, meaning each person’s job had to be defined at the outset. Union rules were probably critical, too. As science trends to larger and larger teams, it will probably become easier to lay out the task each person did.

    Deciding who gets to be an author in the first place should also not be a complicated issue in theory, because there are existing guidelines for who gets to be an author (the Vancouver guidelines). In practice, surprisingly few researchers know these guidelines, some ignore them, some outright reject them. And maybe because of these, journals don’t enforce them.

  2. eratosignis says:

    I’d like to see an authorship contribution statement saying “Every author contributed to designing the research, performing the research, developing the methods, analyzing data, and writing the paper.” Nothing would prevent this from being a valid statement of authorship contribution, I think.

  3. Pingback: Views on authorship and author contribution statements: poll results, part 2 | Dynamic Ecology

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