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In search of credit

Explicit recognition of researchers’ contributions to science is becoming more comprehensive. Not before time — especially as a means of crediting referees.

Last year, this journal received an unusual request: could three authors have it indicated in a footnote that they were joint second authors on a paper? We refused — for better or worse, our policy is to allow no more than three authors in first and last positions on a paper. But authorship order is a much greater obsession in some disciplines than others (the example in question was from biology). And there could hardly be a more clumsy way of indicating credit — not to mention the disputes that it provokes among co-authors.

For several years, Nature and the Nature research journals have insisted that each author’s contribution should be indicated in a statement at the end of any paper. However, these statements are not systematic, and are not accompanied by metadata to make them more searchable. So although this approach works reasonably well in indicating who did what on a particular paper, there is potential for such statements to cumulatively provide a database of the skills and experience of individual researchers. Through such statements, it could become transparently clear that, say, John Smith was responsible for the development of a particular technique and had applied it in multiple contexts. At Nature, we are working on ways to increase the utility of author contribution statements and so achieve such transparency.

Of course, it would help to know which John Smith we are talking about. And here is where last year’s launch of the Open Researcher and Contributor ID (ORCID) facility is to be welcomed. The core function of ORCID — a community collaboration (see go.nature.com/sy3qnp) — is to assign every researcher a number and a web page, thereby providing a unique identifier and so disambiguation. The web page enables the researcher to record their contributions: papers they have published and — a facility to come — their research grants and patents. Nature journals authors can link their ORCID to their account in our manuscript submission and tracking system, and we will soon be publishing authors’ ORCIDs in papers. (Readers can register for ORCID here: https://orcid.org/register; see also Nature 485, 564; 2012.)

In contrast to such public activities, refereeing tends to be a private affair, whether for funding agencies or for journals. But it is of immense value and deserves its own credit. Referees can examine a submission only for its surface validity rather than for its deeper truth, but that in itself involves a substantial commitment. Some may devote days to the task if they are sufficiently stimulated or worried. The more that can be done to reward such dedication the better.

That is why Nature and the Nature journals have introduced two ways in which referees can be given credit. Any referee who, in a given year, has refereed three or more papers for any of the journals will receive a letter acknowledging their contribution and a free subscription to their choice of one of the journals. More importantly, we have recently introduced a system by which our referees can download a statement of the number of papers they have refereed for us. This report is available by logging into the ‘My Account’ page on any Nature journal’s manuscript submission and tracking system and reflects the refereeing activity across all Nature journals. If nothing else, such statements provide a formal reference that someone can pass on to employers, government agencies and others enlightened enough to appreciate the value of such contributions.

All of these developments are ways in which researchers can gain explicit credit for contributions that have previously relied more on word of mouth. This is a trend that we will continue to support and encourage.

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Scientists: your number is up 2012-May-30

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Transparency showcases strength of peer review 2010-Nov-03

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In search of credit. Nature 493, 5 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/493005a

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