Science first, scientists later

How and why we should get rid of author lists in scientific publications

About a month ago, Steven Burgess, conducted a Twitter poll asking if biologists would consider making the lists of authors that accompanies every scientific publication, alphabetical. Unsurprisingly, I and 670 other scientists voted against this proposal.

i. the problem

A very slightly exaggerated version of how scientists read author lists.

Closer to the front and you’re probably someone who did most of the lab work. If you’re first on the list, you probably wrote the entire paper too. If you’re last or second last, you are likely the professor or Principal Investigator who brought in the money, played some role in designing the experiments, and edited the paper.

So far, so good; the system seems perfectly logical. The problem is that author lists form an important part of any academic CV where they are present in the “Publications” section. For example, a snippet from my CV:

Author lists in an academic CV

Reviewers on hiring committees and grant funding applications usually don’t have the time to read each publication and assess author contributions, and hence rely, to different degrees, on the position of you name on the author list for each publication. The same applies for other scientists reading papers, many of whom remember papers purely based on the first author’s name (as in “Did you read that paper by Li et al., 2017?”) or based on the last author (like: “Doudna’s lab just published a new Cas9 paper!”).

This equation of author list order with relative “importance/contribution” then, obviously leads to differing perceptions among each author and each reader:

Perceptions of importance. ©Devang Mehta 2017

Consequently, author lists often cause problems in many laboratories, leading to tension, stress and even outright fights. Some labs have tried to deal with this by instituting metrics to determine author order, or at least some rough criteria.

Another trend that’s picked up steam recently is the inclusion of explicit “Author Contribution” statements at the end of scientific journal articles, describing (even using standardised language) the roles of each other.

The author list, however, stubbornly sticks around.

ii. a solution

Toward’s the end of the article he presented us with a revolutionary new format for scientific manuscripts (inspired by a tweet from State Space).

Film Credit Model by Steven Burgess

What struck me immediately was the complete absence of an author list.

This is an incredibly simple solution to an entrenched problem in scientific publishing. And it comes with some far-reaching, and in my opinion, positive, consequences:

Gift authorships and that whole debate will end!

Academic CV’s will change.

My CV with no author lists and with CRediT contributions.

Reference lists will change.

Out with the old…

but not by much:

… in with the new.

Citations in academic papers will use numbered lists and hyperlinks instead of “author-date”.

Science will go on, but authorship will stop mattering so much.

iii. how do we get there

However, scientists don’t usually like to rock any boats and I expect some serious difficulties with getting them and publishers to adopt the Film-Credit model.

Here’s my brief two-step outline of how we can get this done though.

STEP 1: Talk to DORA

STEP 2: Pilot the model with a major publisher/major labs

Eventually, the only way this model becomes reality is if there is sustained interest among Early Career Researchers and some publisher(s) to try it out.

As a first step, vote for the Film Credit model in this 1 minute survey and spread the word.

In the meanwhile, I firmly retract my response to this tweet: