Let's Talk about et al.
(May 16th, 2014) Collaboration is key to success in science. However, if many groups are working together, the list of authors on the resulting paper is sometimes longer than the paper itself. A new author taxonomy system wants to give every author the credit he or she deserves.
A grad student always fancies being part of a research paper, no matter how far behind the first author his or her name appears. It’s a gratifying feeling at least at the very first stages of your research career. But over time you realise how your contribution gets oversimplified, and almost meaningless, when, in every citation of your co-authored paper, you make a merely non-existential appearance within the italicised words, “et al.”.
Research today, especially in the life sciences, has become increasingly collaborative. Technological advancement as well as national research-assessment exercises have raised the bar for research quality. As a result, top scientific journals seek to publish research of a certain high standard that is almost always collaborative. The outcome is a burgeoning rise in multiple author manuscripts, which give little information on individual author contributions. As the author list expands, the contribution of the “8th author on a 15-author paper” is neglected. Now, how fair is that when every author of the research study has slogged for his own part?
Thus, in 2012, a small group of journal editors teamed up with Harvard University, USA, and the Wellcome Trust, UK, to develop a taxonomy of author contributions in an effort to enhance visibility of “who did what” in scientific publications. Their taxonomy-based crediting system was recently tested online among corresponding authors and received a fair amount of success. “The author number inflation on research papers makes it difficult to decipher the contribution of individual authors based on the list of author names. In a multi-author paper, usually the first and last authors are assumed to be the leads. This ambiguity means that research culture and potentially politics, rather than actual contribution, often determine author order,” says Liz Allen, a co-founder of the initiative at the Wellcome Trust, justifying the need for a systematic classification of the roles of all authors in a collaborative effort.
For researchers, either at the beginning of a scientific career seeking academic positions or at an advanced level competing for grants and funding opportunities, publications help gauge their scientific expertise. According to Amy Brand, a co-contributor at Digital Science in Cambridge, USA, credit for research and discovery has a “huge impact on their (researchers’) career advancement and tenure, as well as on the transparency and integrity of the scientific record”. Besides shaping career prospects, clarified roles will enable researchers to find the right experts for a methodological innovation or for future collaborations, or even journals to find the most appropriate peer reviewers.
In the online survey conducted in late 2013, the “14-role taxonomy”, comprising categories ranging from study conception, methodology and analysis, to supervision, project administration and funding acquisition, was circulated to 1,200 corresponding authors of publications in PLoS, Nature, Elsevier journals, Science and eLife. The authors were asked to classify each author’s contribution in the categories provided. The survey also encouraged feedback in terms of the exhaustiveness of the categories and ease of use of the system. The taxonomy fared well among the 230 authors who gave feedback and a good number of them found it a well-structured classification system that was unprecedented.
“The goal of the taxonomy is to provide a machine-readable standard for assigning contribution role tags to listed authors,” states Liz, “while also not adding to the researcher’s burden when preparing and submitting manuscripts.” Though the pilot experiment suffers from small sample size, the feedback provides a starting point to explore avenues for implementing such a system. In the next months, the team will be working closely with the National Information Standards Organization to better evolve the taxonomy and also include the ideas and opinions of a broader cross-section of the research community, including experts from other scientific fields to extend the reach of the taxonomy to areas outside the life sciences.
For researchers like you and me, it seems like the day is not too far out when we will get the credit we deserve for toiling in the lab, developing a technique, or designing an algorithm as part of a bigger collaborative project.