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Greater Clarity and Recognition of Who Did What in the Publication of Research

Jo Scott and Liz Allen, from the Wellcome Trust’s Evaluation team, discuss the potential of a new “taxonomy” for classifying contributions to research papers.

Image Credit: Kate Arkless Gray
Image Credit: Kate Arkless Gray

Original research papers with one author – particularly in the life sciences – are increasingly rare. We know that there are many contributors to research and associated published outputs, but it’s not easy to tell who did what, and author position is an imperfect representation of contribution. Inflation of author numbers on papers, partly driven by a combination of national research assessment exercises and the emergence of big, collaborative and ‘team’ science, has also contributed to this ambiguity. Greater clarity around the different and varied contributions to research outputs could have benefits for all the stakeholders in research.

The recent San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment emphasised a commitment to move away from Journal Impact Factor as a measure of research quality. Initiatives that would bring greater clarity to authorship would provide a new basis upon which to recognise researcher contribution and research use and re-use.

A new approach

Following a workshop on scholarly attribution in 2012, a small group of journal editors joined forces with Harvard University (led by Amy Brand, who is now at Digital Science) and the Wellcome Trust Evaluation team to develop a simple contributor-role taxonomy that researchers could use when thinking about submitting a paper for publication, to complement – or perhaps even replace – an author list.

Feedback on the14-role taxonomy was sought from a sample of corresponding authors of recent work published in PLOS, Nature Publishing Group and Elsevier journals, Science and eLife. Overall feedback on the concept of enabling better definition of contributor roles and the test taxonomy was positive.

What are the benefits of greater clarity?

For researchers, having the ability to better describe what they contributed to a piece of research would remove the opacity caused by expanding author lists. Roles that have not traditionally qualified as “authorship” could be recognised and researchers could draw attention to their specific contributions to published work to demonstrate their skills and potential. We feel this would be of particular benefit to people who are starting out in a research career, where the opportunities to be a ‘key’ author on a paper can prove elusive.

Image Credit: Flickr, Colin Kinner
Image Credit: Flickr, Colin Kinner

For funding agencies, better information around the previous contributions of individual
grant applicants would aid the funding decision-making process. Greater visibility of research contributions would also help those looking for the most apt peer reviewers. For institutions, understanding a researcher’s unique contribution is fundamental to the academic appointment and promotion process. And for publishers, greater transparency in contributor assignment would help to reduce the volume of authorship disputes being managed by journal editors.

Next steps

Over the next year we will be collaborating with organisations including the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) and the Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information (CASRAI) to evolve the taxonomy. Through this collaboration, we will consult a broader cross-section of the research community to ascertain the value that greater definition of contributor roles would bring to the research ecosystem. We are mindful that any new approach must not add to researchers’ burdens in submitting and publishing work, nor bring about unintended, negative consequences.

You can find the full article ‘Credit where credit’s due‘ in Nature. 

Liz Allen is Head of Evaluation at the Wellcome Trust

Jo Scott is an Evaluation Officer at the Wellcome Trust

  1. I do consider all of the ideas you’ve introduced to ylur post.

    They’re really convincing annd can certainly work.
    Still, the posts are very short for novices. May just you please lengtjen them a littl from subsequent time?
    Thanks for the post.

  2. An impressive share! I have just forwarded tyis onto a colleague who had been doing a little research on this.

    And he in fact ordered me lunch due to the fact that I found it for
    him… lol. So allow me to reword this….
    Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending time to talk about this topic
    here on your weeb site.

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