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Giving credit where credit is due

Euan Adie, 10th November 2017

At the end of last month I travelled to Berlin for FORCE 2017, this year’s version of the annual conference that sprung out of the FORC Workshop and Beyond the PDF conferences back in 2011. FORCE11, the group that organizes the conference, has a worthy mission that includes “bring[ing] about a change in modern scholarly communications through the effective use of information technology” which I expect many readers of this blog would be on board with – check out the manifesto for more.

I helped to run a workshop designed to help people become more familiar with the problem of assigning scholarly credit with Karen Gutzman and Matt Carson from Northwestern, who together did most of the actual work ;).

One problem with academic credit – at least in the life sciences – is maybe best communicated with an image:

I’ve always had selfish reasons to be interested in this topic as my partner worked for a long time as a research technician and contributed to many different projects but has few publications because… well… why exactly? It’s kind of accepted wisdom that technicians get acknowledged, but help over a far shorter time period from, say, a statistician would warrant authorship.

Many scientists say technicians are merely doing what they are told, while the credit – the all-important name on the paper – goes to those whose intellectual thought made the research a success (from “Who really made Dolly?” in The Guardian, March 2006)

The Guardian has a great piece covering an argument over the relative contributions of different researchers & support staff to the creation of Dolly, the first cloned sheep. What’s valuable, I think, is that it’s written by a journalist rather than a researcher, which gives it an interesting perspective.

The quote pulled out above certainly is worth discussing: maybe there is a line to cross related to intellectual contribution. Realistically, though, it’d be naive to assume that there aren’t many last authors only listed on papers because they happen to run the lab in which the work was done.

Anyway, the session involved looking at some different systems for giving & tracking credit, both inside of the scholarly sphere (like Project CRediT and SCoRO) and outside it (like LinkedIn Endorsements and Mozilla Badges), followed by some attempts to apply ontologies to some real-life examples and lots of group discussion.

Matt talked a bit (from past experience!) about the system used in music to help determine royalty fees and we took a look at the list of roles available there:

By the end of the workshop I was particularly taken by the idea of IMDB style movie credits on papers: there are clear roles, even the caterer gets a credit, you can imagine how it might look on a paper. Then Neil from the SSI pointed out these kinds of credits have problems too – everything from the CGI artists working on blockbuster films not getting individual mentions, to wrangles over positioning and specific rules for writers, producers and directors.

So…. no solutions in ninety minutes from us, but lots of ideas. I think everybody left feeling more familiar with the issues involved and, hopefully, keen to get involved wherever they thought they could help.

On that note do check out CRediT, which doesn’t cover everything but is at least a step in the right direction.

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