Author credits …. Credited for what?

By Ernesto Spinak

Picture: Enokson.

For many years, the impact of a particular author’s publications as measured by the Impact Factor of the journals in which that author has published, has been used as an accurate way of measuring the progression of that author’s academic career. This parameter is generally used by universities and government agencies on a scale of relevance to establish positions ranked by merit.

However, the Impact Factor as a measurement of the impact and productivity of individual authors, which really came to prominence in the era of “Little Science”as defined by Price (1963), is no longer an accurate measurement now that “Little Science”has matured into “Big Science “over the last few decades.

In accordance with the concept established by Price, during the “Little Science”period it was usual for researchers to work alone or in small groups. But when science matured and became “Big Science”, its particular characteristic was scientific collaboration which allows for the development of large scale projects and access to sources of funding. According to the “elitist”theory of Price, the existence of an extremely active nucleus of researchers and an extensive floating population which collaborates with the leading researchers in their fields, is quite normal. Scientific collaboration is a consequence of the professionalization of work which involves both organizations and funding agencies as well as scientists both collectively and individually.

So, when the merits of an author of a publication are evaluated –shall we call it the “Impact”? – the question of the title of this article comes to mind…. credited for what ? In other words, in a collaborative work in which dozens of experts have jointly collaborated, the questions which must be asked are : Who is THE author ? Did everyone do the same, and do all the different contributions have the same originality or importance when the credits are apportioned ?

Scientific activity is a social endeavor –and why not also a business venture ? where the rules of promotion, marketing and reward are not so very different to those of other enterprises such as the film industry. This comparison has already been made repeatedly in the specialist literature, and most recently in the journal Nature, where the author wrote:

When it comes to apportioning credit, science could learn from the movies. Since 1934, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, has maintained an index to film credits, now called the Motion Picture Credits Database. (Frische 2012)

Scientific research, just like the film industry, is not an activity undertaken by one person. There are exceptions for sure, such as “El Mariachi”of Carlos Gallardo which was made at a cost of USD$7,000 in 1992 and won many international prizes. But no-one could possibly think that films such as “The Godfather”¹ which won three Oscars, or “Gladiator”²with a budget of 104 million dollars and five Oscars to its credit, were individual endeavors, or the handiwork of a small number of people. For this reason, the Academy does not reward “authors”as much as give “credits”to many different people in 24 different categories³, such as best actor, best director, best original screenplay, best visual effects, best music, etc.

This is the topic which is taken up by an article recently published in Nature entitled “Publishing : Credit where credit is due“⁴, where it is pointed out that it is no easy task these days to determine what each of the people indicated as authors in a published work actually did or collaborated in, either in the acknowledgements or contributions sections of the majority of journals. And, in addition, owing to the fact that these sections are not structured or standardized, it is very difficult to use data mining techniques to extract this data.

The authors of the Nature article mentioned above, are proposing a taxonomy to categorize the different roles carried out by the scientists and experts who collaborate in the writing of an article, and from there identify and correctly index their roles using an appropriate piece of software. Following this course of action, it would be possible to better evaluate professionals within their different specialized areas, such as those who design research methodologies, write the articles, work in the laboratories, and carry out statistical analyses, etc. In this way, publishers will be able to better select the most appropriate peer-reviewers for an article, and funding agencies will be able to assess research teams seeking financial support.

The authors of the article “Publishing : Credit where credit is due”⁴ carried out a pilot experiment to develop a provisional 14-role taxonomy at the end of 2013. The survey was sent to 1,200 researchers who had previously published articles in PLOS journals, Nature Publishing Group and Elsevier. Around 230 authors provided feedback with 85% finding the taxonomy easy to use and stating that it covered all the major roles.

The taxonomy includes the following role categories,

Taxonomy category Role description
Study conception Ideas; formulation of research question; statement of hypothesis.
Methodology Development or design of methodology; creation of models.
Computation Programming, software development; designing computer programs; implementation of the computer code and supporting algorithms.
Formal analysis Application of statistical, mathematical or other formal techniques to analyse study data.
Investigation: performed the experiments Conducting the research and investigation process, specifically performing the experiments.
Investigation: data/evidence collection Conducting the research and investigation process, specificallydata/evidence collection.
Resources Provision of study materials, reagents, materials, patients, laboratory samples, animals, instrumentation or other analysis tools.
Data curation Management activities to annotate (produce metadata) and maintain research data for initial use and later re-use.
Writing/manuscript preparation: writing the initial draft Preparation, creation and/or presentation of the published work, specifically writing the initial draft.
Writing/manuscript preparation: critical review, commentary or revision Preparation, creation and/or presentation of the published work, specifically critical review, commentary or revision.
Writing/manuscript preparation: visualization/data presentation Preparation, creation and/or presentation of the published work, specifically visualization/data presentation.
Supervision Responsibility for supervising research; project orchestration; principal investigator or other lead stakeholder.
Project administration Coordination or management of research activities leading to this publication.
Funding acquisition Acquisition of the financial support for the project leading to this publication.


but study is still needed to determine if these 14 roles adequately cover other areas of research that may require other types of profiles. For example, an article of six pages on the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN in Geneva contains seven pages of author names without any indication in the list as to who did what to merit being included as an author⁵. A new workshop to improve this taxonomy is being planned for the third quarter of 2014.

Having information on author participation available in an open database will have many benefits. Journal editors, academic evaluation processes, and funding agencies will be just a mouse click a way from knowing what a particular researcher has contributed in his or her area of expertise, thus preventing project supervisors from inappropriately taking credit for another’s work. If a research team requires an expert in topic “xx”, it will be able to search for the right person, for example a statistical analyst or meta-analyst, or whatever other expertise is required.

Thus the concept of “author” as a dominant measure of esteem will begin to undergo modification. Scientific journals will have to adapt their instructions for authors to redefine the meaning of the generic concept of “author” against a standardized taxonomy.

This change will require the definition of new metadata and will bring about an enrichment of information on scientific activity held in international databases. Thus, the information contained in research networks will allow for the measurement of not only the magic Impact Factor but also of the skills of each registered expert and researcher, creating an inducement to honesty and an improvement in transparency, the morals and ethics of the culture of science. Having this kind of information in databases is not a new idea; it has existed for decades in the Motion Picture Credits Database.

My reflections

When someone mentions the movie Pink Panther to me, I do not think of Blake Edwards or Peter Sellers. Instead I think of Henry Mancini, creator of the theme music which everyone identifies with the Pink Panther cartoon character: “dadum, dadum, dadum dadum dadum!!…” It is this which had the greatest impact.


¹ The Godfather (1972). Francis Ford Coppola, con Marlon Brando y al Pacino –

² Gladiator (2000). Ridely Scott, con Russel Crowe –

³ Academy Awards. Merits –

⁴ ALLEN, L. et al. Publishing: Credit where credit is due. Nature. 2014. Vol. 508, nº. 7496, pp. 312-3. Available from:

⁵ FRISCHE, S. It is time for full disclosure of author contributions. Nature. 2012, vol. 489, nº. 7417, pp. 475.Available from:


ALLEN, L. et al. Publishing: Credit where credit is due. Nature. 2014. Vol. 508, nº. 7496, pp. 312-3. Available from:

FRISCHE, S. It is time for full disclosure of author contributions. Nature. 2012, vol. 489, nº. 7417, pp. 475.Available from:

PRICE, D.J.S. Little Science, Big Science. New York: Columbia University Press. 1963. 119.p


Ernesto SpinakAbout Ernesto Spinak

Collaborator on the SciELO program, a Systems Engineer with a Bachelor’s degree in Library Science, and a Diploma of Advanced Studies from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain) and a Master’s in “Sociedad de la Información” (Information Society) from the same university. Currently has a consulting company that provides services in information projects to 14 government institutions and universities in Uruguay.


Translated from the original in Spanish by Nicholas Cop Consulting.


How to cite this post [ISO 690/2010]:

SPINAK, E. Author credits …. Credited for what? [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2014 [viewed ]. Available from:


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