I report often on this blog about new papers that I have co-authored. Every time I highlight something that is special about that particular publication. This time I want to highlight a paper that I co-authored, but also didn’t. Let me explain.
Since I have reshuffled my research, I am officially part of the QUEST team, and therefore I am part of that group. I gave some input on the paper, like many of my colleagues, but nowhere near enough to justify full authorship. That would, after all, require the following 4(!) elements, according to the ICMJE,
Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
Final approval of the version to be published; AND
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.
This is what the ICMJE says about large author groups: “Some large multi-author groups designate authorship by a group name, with or without the names of individuals. When submitting a manuscript authored by a group, the corresponding author should specify the group name if one exists, and clearly identify the group members who can take credit and responsibility for the work as authors. The byline of the article identifies who is directly responsible for the manuscript, and MEDLINE lists as authors whichever names appear on the byline. If the byline includes a group name, MEDLINE will list the names of individual group members who are authors or who are collaborators, sometimes called non-author contributors, if there is a note associated with the byline clearly stating that the individual names are elsewhere in the paper and whether those names are authors or collaborators.”
I think that this format should be used more, but that will only happen if people take the collaborator status seriously as well. Other “contribution solutions” can help to give some insight into what it means to be a collaborator, such as a detailed description like in movie credits or a standardized contribution table. We have to start appreciating all forms of contributions.
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!
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.