New article published – but did I deserve it?

One of these dots is me standing on a platform waiting for my train! Source: GNCnet.nl

This website is to keep track of all things that sound ‘sciency’, and so all the papers that I contributed end up here with a short description. Normally this means that I am one of the authors and I know well ahead of time that an article will be published online or in print. Today, however, I got a little surprise: I got notice that I am a co-author on a paper (pdf) which I knew was coming, but I didn’t know that I was a co-author. And my amazement grew even more the moment that I discovered that I was placed as the last author, a place reserved for senior authorship in most medical journals.

However , there is a catch… I had to share my ‘last authorship’ position with 3186 others, an unprecedented number!

You might have guessed that this is not just a normal paper and that there is something weird going on here. Well weird is not the right word. Unusual is the word I would like to use since this paper is an example of something that I hope will happen more often! Citizen scientists. A citizen scientist is where ordinary people without any background or training can help in a scientific experiment of some sorts by helping just a little to obtain the data after some minimal instruction. This is wonderfully explained by this project, the iSpex project, where I contributed not as an epidemiologist, but as a citizen scientist. If you want to know more, just read what I have written  previously on this blog in the post ‘measuring aerosols with your iPhone’.

So the researcher who initiated the iSpex project have now analysed their data and submitted the results to the journal Geophysical research letters, and as a bonus made all contributing citizen scientist co-author. Cool!

Now lets get back to the question stated in the title… Did I deserve an authorship on this paper? Basically no: none of the 3187 citizen scientist do not fulfil the criteria of authorship that I am used to (i.e. ICMJE), nor fulfil the criteria of the journal itself. I am no exception. However, I do believe that it is quite clear for any reader what the role of these citizen scientist was in this project. So this new form of a authorship, i.e. ‘gift authorship to a group of citizen scientists’ is a cool way to keep the public engaged to science. A job well done!

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credit and accountability: new authorship rules by ICMJE

The international consortium of medical journal editors (ICMJE) have issued a new version of their recommadations.The most important change is the addition of a fourth aspect to the list of authorship criteria. According to their motivation , this addition was inspired by cases of scientific misconduct investigation in which authors denied responsibility (e.g. “I didn’t participate in that part of the study or in writing that part of the paper; ask someone else”). According to the ICMJE, authorship requires:

1 | Substantial contributions to: the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND

2 | Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND

3 |Final approval of the version to be published; AND

4 | Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved

To my opinion, this addition is a good way to help researchers think about their role in the writing process: am I involved enough to justify an authorship?

However, denying responsibility of a case of scientific misconduct is in my book not the same as being responsible of the misconduct. This addition could lead to the situation where such a denial equals scientific misconduct. Isn’t that a bit to harsh? Also, the fourth criterion reflects your actions in a situation in the future, not the work that has already been done as is the case is criteria 1-3.  It is possible to compare your actions of the past to the criteria, but this is more problematic for the future. For example, a researcher might be willing, but unable to help in an investigation (e.g. change of lab). This might lead to several problems in the future, especially for young scientist who often change research groups. To make this fourth criterion work, the idea of the fourth criterion should lie in the willingness to help, the act of helping itself.