Hollywood as a model for academic research

Academia has a problem: the value, necessity, and practices of collaboration are increasing, but the system of giving credit is inadequate. In most fields, there are only 4 levels of credit:

  • None at all
  • “Our thanks to Jill for sharing her data.” (a note of thanks)
  • First Authorship (This is ambiguous: it may be alphabetical.)
  • Listed as another author

In contrast to this paucity, modern empirical paper writing has many roles. Here are a dozen roles. Not all of them are important on a single paper, but each of them is important in some papers.

  • Intellectual leadership.
    • Source of the original idea
  • Doing the writing
    • Writing various parts, e.g. literature review
    • Doing the grunt work on the stat analysis. (Writing and running the R code)
    • Doing the grunt work of finalizing for publication. (Much easier than it used to be!)
    • Dealing with revisions, exchanges with editors, etc.
  • Source of the data.
    • Funder of the data
  • Raised the funding;
    • Runs the lab where the authors are employed
    • Source of the money: usually an agency or foundation, but sometimes the contracting author is listed as a coauthor.

We have no formal, and little informal, way to credit many of these roles. Especially when they are done by a grad student or undergraduate who is getting a stipend arranged by one of the authors, they are often given only “thanks,” even when they did major work. We have all heard stories of faculty who were found to have messed up the attribution of prior work in their book, and defended themselves by saying “I didn’t write that part; my researcher did.” [Which is the textbook definition of plagiarism,  apparently except when done by a senior faculty member.]

The most thorough solution I know of is provided by Hollywood movie credits. The industry has a number of roles and titles, including “grip” and “best boy.”  100 people can end up in the credits of a movie. (Even so, I bet lots of outside firms have employees who are not recognized by name, just by the name of their company.) I think academia should be thinking seriously about this approach. Some journals are starting to require statements of what each author “contributed,” but the grad student contributors still get left out.

Why does this matter? The opportunities, ease, and value of research collaboration are all increasing. It is getting easier to collaborate across multiple disciplines, geographic dispersion, and working with specialists. Better attribution would improve this slightly. It might also help slightly with the problem of increasing fractions of NIH and NSF money going to older faculty.

Related issue: Number of authors The average number of authors in many fields is increasing over time.  Over 20 years, the average number of authors per paper grew from 3.2 to 4.4.

This Wikipedia article has a number of interesting comments about the underlying issues of academic credit. For example:

Alternatively, the increase in multi-authorship might be a consequence of the way scientists are evaluated. Traditionally, scientists were judged by the number of papers they published, and later by the impact of those papers….When each author claims each paper and each citation as his/her own, papers and citations are magically multiplied by the number of authors. Furthermore, there is no cost to giving authorship to individuals who made only minor contribution and there is an incentive to do so.[The last part is disputable. RB] Hence, the system rewards heavily multi-authored papers. This problem is openly acknowledged, and it could easily be “corrected” by dividing each paper and its citations by the number of authors.[21][22]

What do people think? Individual journals could encourage better attribution. So could tenure committees. But primarily entire disciplines will have to agree on better methods. Since the oldsters like me have most of the power in all 3 of these groups, I don’t expect rapid progress!


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