Authorship position should not serve as a proxy metric

Marcus Munafò and George Davey Smith suggest that using different lines of evidence (triangulation) to verify results will change how credit is assigned to authors of research papers (Nature 553, 399–401; 2018). In my view, it would help if we were to abolish the convention of using an author’s position in the list as a proxy weighting of contribution. Such a move would shift the assessor’s curiosity to the ‘author contributions’ section, and render evaluation more meaningful and transparent.

Currently, author sequence still claims more attention than short descriptions of author contributions in those journals that include them (D. van Dijk et al. Curr. Biol. 24, R516–R517; 2014). If individual careers in many fields continue to depend on first and last authorship positions, scientific progress and even quality could become a lesser concern. And simple quantitative metrics, such as linear ranking of authors according to contribution, are open to abuse (P. E. Smaldino and R. McElreath R. Soc. Open Sci. 3, 160384; 2016).

If it is only the specified contribution that counts, there will be a strong incentive for researchers to contribute effectively and in innovative ways. It would encourage collaboration and discourage honorary and ‘guest’ authorship. Indeterminate contributions would become more apparent.

As for the roll-call of authors, let’s explore such alternative formats as alphabetical listing, which is often used in mathematics, economics and high-energy physics.

Nature 554, 423 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-02204-w
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