09/05/2022 02:38

The microscopist’s Oscar

  • Blog Fundamental Science

Science needs to overcome the concept of authorship to adapt to the 21st century

Art: Julia Jabur

By Olavo Amaral

Polemics around the definition of authorship are not exactly new in science. In the 17th century, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz clashed over primacy in the invention of calculus – largely because documentation of the scientific process was still incipient.

With the advent of the scientific article, recording the authorship of ideas became easier, and the concept became central to the organization of the academic community. The authorship of research studies defines practically all evaluation metrics of scientists, serving as a criterion to distribute jobs, funds and recognition. It is not by chance that much of the controversy in the field of scientific integrity revolves around it, as in cases of plagiarism, honorary authorship or disputes between authors.

That said, what does it mean to be the author of an article? Authorship in the literature has been problematized by thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, but establishing it in science is much more difficult. With increasingly complex and collaborative research, scientific work usually depends on tens or hundreds of people. Some will remain involved with the project for years, while others will make specific – but sometimes crucial – contributions. How can the imaginary line that determines who is an “author” be drawn?

Different fields of research deal with the problem in different ways. Many employ the criteria of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, who state that an author must meet four criteria: (a) contribute substantially to the conception or design of the work or to the collection, analysis, or interpretation of data; (b) participate in the drafting or review of the article; (c) approve the final published version and (d) agree to be accountable for all aspects of the study.

The definition is vague enough to include anyone who has given suggestions in different stages of a project because what constitutes a “substantial contribution” is quite subjective. However, it is also strict enough to exclude someone who may have collected all the data but did not read the final version of the article. In addition, the idea that each author takes accountability for the whole is unsustainable – in a study involving experiments with different techniques in multiple laboratories, it is obvious that no one can attest alone to the integrity of everything that has been done.

Perhaps because of this, strongly collaborative research areas choose to follow different models. The great collaborations in physics often publish articles with hundreds or thousands of authors, typically listed in alphabetical order: the measurement of the Higgs Boson mass by the Atlas Collaboration, for example, lists no less than 5,154 authors. The criterion is inclusive, but it is also imprecise, by leveling very different contributions – and not always specified – within the same category of “author.”

However, if all the definitions seem problematic, would the problem not be in the concept? In 1997, the then editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Drummond Rennie, stated that authorship had failed. With the advancement of collaborations in science, the model had become outdated and, stretched to its limit, was no longer useful. Rennie’s proposal was to replace it with a list with the specific contributions of each person involved, which would overcome the dichotomy between being or not being an author.

Twenty-five years later, however, authorship remains firm and strong, which shows that some traditions are difficult to break. The notion that a scientific work has one or more “authors”, in the same model of a literary work, comes from a time when scientists worked alone or, at most, in small groups. Determining the author of a scientific work thus was not a problem for much of history.

Until the mid-20th century, when science was institutionalized in its current form, the model of few authors still dominated most research fields – and still prevails in some of them. Perhaps that is why science narratives – or honors such as the Nobel prize – are often focused on individuals. Therefore, they are invariably unfair to tens or hundreds of people who contributed to the process of a discovery but do not share the prize with the winners.

Interestingly, there are opposing traditions outside the academic world. In film, which also brings together numerous teams around projects, authorship is solved radically differently. We are all used to detailed credit lists, which make it clear who the director is, who the make-up artist is and who the electrician is. And the question of who is or is not the author of a film, even if it may exist on the philosophical level, does not have great practical relevance.

The differences are not by chance: unlike science, film was born as an industry due to the extreme technical complexity of filming at the beginning of the 20th century. The idea of “auteur cinema” would only emerge later, with the attribution of a certain primacy to the director in this regard – even so, it is obvious that films are the result of many people performing different roles.

Interestingly, science and film evolve in opposite ways – while scientific projects have a rising number of authors, it is increasingly feasible to make films with small teams. However, neither field has changed its way of assigning credit: scientists continue to list publications of which they are “authors” without specifying what they did, while filmmakers only achieve a higher degree of “authorship” in a film by accumulating roles.

Proposals to change the system are not lacking: CRedIT, for example, is a taxonomy of 14 generic roles that can be used to describe contributions in a scientific project, and it is increasingly common for such information to be requested in the submission of an article. But as long as universities and development agencies don’t stop to look at who did what when distributing positions and resources, authorship will continue to be a mostly symbolic classification.

The situation will only change when the academic world admits that adapting its modus operandi to the division of roles is imperative to deal with increasingly complex scientific projects. By recognizing the authorship of articles as the only form of contribution, the system not only errs in the attribution of credit but also stifles innovation in the organization of scientific work.

Scientists who collect data, for example, today have little incentive to share it so that others can analyze it because the authorship of data – as opposed to articles – is often invisible to institutions and funders. Researchers who want to specialize in specific roles – whether conducting experiments, managing projects or analyzing data – do not find compatible careers, due to the archaic model of the scientist who does everything alone.

Again, you do not have to go far to see what other forms of organization are possible. As much as film students are taught general concepts about audiovisual production, they are more likely to end up working in specialized roles. The reason is that the market knows how to recognize good experts: not by chance, the Hollywood academy awards Oscars to a multitude of technical categories, and no one seems to complain that its winners are not authors of the films. And even if it is possible to make auteur movies with very small teams, no one would try to produce a blockbuster using this model.

In the other academy, we are still obsessed with the model of the 19th-century scientist, capable of simultaneously being a screenwriter, director, editor and producer. That may continue to exist, but it is insufficient to build a robust science. Maybe it is time to learn from film and institute jobs – and awards – for good microscopists, data analysts or project managers. Only then will we stop slapping each other in futile disputes over authorship and create work structures compatible with 21st century science.

This text was originally publicated on Folha de S.Paulo

  • Topics
  • academic community
  • authorship
  • Open data