As promised, here are the results of our recent reader poll on author contribution statements. See part 1 of the results for respondent demographics and their views on authorship.
Part 1 revealed widespread disagreement about what contributions merit authorship. Authorship standards also are changing. And science is becoming increasingly collaborative. All of which would seem to be arguments against the traditional practice of trying to summarize credit and responsibility for a paper solely with an ordered list of authors, and in favor of author contribution statements. That’s been my thinking for a few years: I like author contribution statements and routinely include them on all my papers, even if the journal doesn’t require one.
But it turns out there are widespread mixed feelings about author contribution statements. Which I now share…
Most people (87%) only include an author contribution statement when the journal requires one. Didn’t realize that including them in all my papers put me in that small a minority (10%).
When I write an author contribution statement, I always write a draft and then circulate it to the other authors for their approval and any needed corrections. I had naively assumed this was how everyone did it. But a comment from Joan Strassmann (sorry can’t find it now) prompted me to ask how author contribution statements are written. I’m glad I asked, because there’s substantial variation in how authorship contribution statements are written. My way–with input and agreement from all authors–is most common but not the majority (40%). 20% of respondents said “it varies” in their experience. 18% said that in their experience the first author writes the statement without input or agreement from the other authors. The rest didn’t know or gave some other answer.
Most respondents (82%) think author contribution statements should be written with input and agreement from all authors. Which I was glad to see, since I struggle to see a principled argument for any other view. 12% said the first author should write the statement and that there’s rarely a need for input or approval from other authors, and 1% stumped for the senior author.
There’s disagreement on how accurate author contribution statements are. Only 41% of respondents said author contribution statements are always or usually accurate, in their experience. 24% said they’re sometimes accurate, 6% said they’re rarely or never accurate in their experience, the remainder weren’t sure. This surprised me. Until I read Joan Strassmann’s doubts about the accuracy of author contribution statements and saw the poll results, it had never occurred to me to worry about the accuracy of author contribution statements. Though I do wonder how much of the concern here is really with vagueness as opposed to accuracy (recognizing that the line between the two is fuzzy). Which brings us to the next question…
Most people have some criticisms of author contribution statements, but different people have different criticisms. I listed various real and hypothetical criticisms of author contribution statements, asking respondents to check all those they agreed with. Only 34% of respondents didn’t agree with any of the listed criticisms, but the remainder varied on which criticisms they agreed with. Many of the listed criticisms are hard to compress into labels on a graph, so I’ll list them:
- 36% said author contribution statements are vague/imprecise
- 28% said they encourage credit for a paper to be spread more evenly than it should be spread
- 20% said they legitimize authorship for non-authorial contributions and encourage over-expansive author lists
- 16% said they’re a tool for PIs to claim undeserved credit at the expense of trainees
- 16% said they’re inaccurate (aside: that’s much less than the 30% of people who, in response to a previous question, said author contribution statements are sometimes, rarely, or never accurate. So a large chunk of that 30% presumably are concerned with vagueness rather than inaccuracy.)
- 14% said they don’t add useful information to the author list
- 14% said “they don’t tell me what I want to know”
- 6% said their widespread adoption is inhibiting adoption of other, better ways of apportioning credit for scientific work
There’s disagreement on how useful and informative author contribution statements are. 36% of respondents find them useful and informative–a significant improvement over just looking at the author list. 40% find them useful only in certain circumstances, such as for papers with many authors or interdisciplinary collaborations. 18% find them rarely or never useful and informative. But that still leaves open the question of exactly what people find author contribution statements useful for. Which brings us to our next question…
People mostly don’t read author contribution statements for purposes of apportioning credit and responsibility. Rather, they mostly read them to satisfy personal curiosity–or not at all. When asked to check all the reasons for which they read author contribution statements, by far the most common choice was “when I’m curious to see who did what on a particular paper” (68%). Second was “when I want to ask a question about a paper and need to figure out who did what” (27%). No other reason for reading author contribution statements was chosen by more than a small minority of respondents. In particular, less than 10% read them when evaluating applicants for jobs, grants, scholarships, etc., not even just to help distinguish among the most competitive applicants. Even if you allow for the fact that it’s mostly only faculty who ever have to evaluate applicants, that’s a small percentage. And people who rarely or never read author contribution statements (21%) outnumber those who read them for every paper they read (12%).
Finally, there’s little support for the alternative of specifying each author’s overall percentage contribution to the paper, with the total summing to 100%. Which I was glad to see, because I don’t think it’s useful to try to be so precise about something that’s necessarily somewhat nebulous. 45% of respondents don’t want to see journals go this route. 22% would want it only if there was some standardized way of doing it (aside: good luck getting agreement on how to standardize that, given how much disagreement there is on who should even be listed as an author!). 16% would like it only as an option, not a requirement. 7% want to summarize author contributions in All The Ways and want to see percentage contributions listed in addition to author contribution statements. Only 2% want to see statements of overall percentage contribution replace author contribution statements.
This poll really made me stop and think, which is great. Previously, I’d been strongly in favor of author contribution statements but hadn’t really thought about why. I just had a vague sense that, because author ordership practices vary and are changing, it made sense to stop relying solely on author order to convey information about author contributions. But it turns out almost no one wants the extra information that author contribution statements convey, except for unimportant purposes. In light of that, I’m no longer in favor of author contribution statements. Because I’m sorry, but there’s no need to have formal statements of author contribution just to satisfy the personal curiosity of readers about who did what. And if you have a question about a paper, you can and should just contact the corresponding author, rather than reading the author contribution statement to try to figure out who to contact. That’s what corresponding authors are for. Conversely, the people who do have an important reason to care about apportioning credit and responsibility for scientific papers–those charged with evaluating applicants for jobs, grants, scholarships, and fellowships–mostly don’t read author contribution statements. Not, I would hasten to add, because they’re lazy or bad at their jobs–they’re not! But because they already have many other sources of information about the applicants they’re evaluating, to which author contribution statements add little or nothing.
It’s funny: until forced to stop and think by my own poll, I hadn’t realized that I’d never read any author contribution statement besides my own. Which tells you (and me!) all you need to know about how much I actually valued author contribution statements, as opposed to how much I said I valued them.
So I’ve changed my mind about author contribution statements. I’ll probably stop providing them unless they’re required, depending of course on what my co-authors want. Because there’s no point to them right now. Maybe there will be in future. Maybe some day everyone will use them instead of author lists and other sources of information to apportion credit and responsibility. And I suppose you could argue that since it doesn’t cost much time and effort to write author contribution statements, I ought to just keep doing them so as to be prepared for–and perhaps help bring about–the day when they serve some important purpose. To which, meh–I’m not an early adopter.* I’m not one to do something pointless in the hopes that one day it will cease to be pointless.
*I got my first smart phone last week, having previously used a cell phone more primitive than the ones in The Matrix. I also still purchase DVDs (not even Blu-Ray; DVDs). Insert your own Luddite joke here.**
**Brian’s a self-described Luddite too, making this blog 2/3 Luddite. Meg’s the only one here who tweets, uses Github, wears an Apple Watch, has a 3D 4K tv, and pre-ordered a self-driving electric Tesla car. Well, I assume she does all those things. As a Luddite, I see people like Meg*** as time travelers from a distant future. Every time I see her, I keep waiting for her to say this. 🙂