Annual Meeting Reports

Pinning Contributions: Transparency of Credit and Responsibility

Contributorship assigns credit to all persons involved in research and in creating a manuscript that reports on it. The contributorship model clarifies the roles of everyone involved and publishes that information for readers. Contributorship has been discussed for well over a decade, but the practice has been slow to catch on. The use of “big data” science reporting and advances in technology may change all that. In this session, the speakers discussed the value of crediting all contributors to a paper and made recommendations for how researchers and publishers can move beyond authorship to contributorship. Diane Scott-Lichter explained the history of the concept and introduced new issues that have arisen. There are now more individual authors per paper, more international and multidisciplinary collaborations, and new content types with different kinds of authorship. “We lack a systematic way to identify and report who did what,” Scott-Lichter said.

The panel included stakeholders consisting of a researcher, an academic administrator, a technology partner, an editor, and a publisher who offered insights into the benefits of and obstacles to contributorship. One potential benefit of defining contributions to a paper is giving appropriate credit. In the age of big data studies in which many people participate in a project, new approaches may be needed to acknowledge the type and level of contribution, said Barbara J Turner. She continued by noting that statisticians and methodologists, for example, need to be recognized for their critical contributions to big data projects even when they are not listed as either first or last (senior) author. Appointments and promotion committees need to be educated to review contributions so they can understand and reward the key role that essential team members serve.

However, standards for describing contributions and roles in projects have yet to be established. Amy Brand, of Digital Science, described a taxonomy of roles being developed through a collaboration with the Wellcome Trust. There are 14 roles in the draft of the taxonomy (see and The initiative is gathering comments on the role definitions. Brand reported that the taxonomy should be final by the end of 2014. Standards developers, such as the Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information and the National Information Standards Organization, are weighing in on the taxonomy. Its implementation would involve online submission systems; new metadata tags in the Journal Article Tag Suite (JATS), Document Type Definition (DTD), and Open Researcher and Contributor ID (ORCID) assignments for all contributors; and deposit of this information into CrossRef.

Veronique Kiermer described how the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) deals with contributorship. Since 2009, NPG journals have mixed authorship and contributorship in the sense that they do not impose strict rules for defining authors but require that every author declare his or her contributions to a study. NPG uses a free text box that allows authors to describe the roles in their own terminology. “If authors want to say that they thought about the paper in the bathtub, then that is what they say,” said Kiermer. She stressed that flexibility is important because the different fields and disciplines have different practices. High-particle physics papers can have hundreds of authors and typically include a statement that all authors contributed equally to the work.

Although there is recognition that the traditional authorship model is not transparent in defining individual contributions, Turner is concerned that researchers are reluctant to make these changes. Jonathan Dugan, of the Public Library of Science, agreed and stressed that publishers and vendors need to build the infrastructure for accommodating contributor credit to convince researchers to change their behavior. He highlighted that changing authorship to contributorship will have widespread effects throughout the process of science, from as early as funding processes to as late as researchers’ CVs and promotion. In a recent study, PLOS Labs conducted interviews with 25 researchers and found that authorship issues are hugely contentious and getting more and more complicated.

After the presentations, there was a brief discussion of whether publishers should define contributor and author roles at all. An early adoption period was suggested, perhaps with free-text boxes for self-definition that could be used alongside a structured taxonomy.