Our world is information in rapid change and growth. Big data needs big teams to create and then communicate the results. In the olden days, someone would do an experiment, find some interesting results to share, write it up, send to a journal and two years later after peer review copy editing, typesetting (later photocomposition), printing, binding, and mailing, it would arrive at their colleagues’ desks. But today the team writes up a big proposal to get funding, finds 3000 staff members to work on the experiments, gather the data, and publish or otherwise communicate the results. In the earlier case, it was easy to say who the authors were; they may have acknowledged others and thanked them for their support. Now there are many roles in research and attribution is complex. I am sure you have noticed how long the credits in the movie theater are now. Will we be moving to a similar model in scholarship and research?

I was privileged to attend the Harvard-Wellcome International Workshop on Contributorship and Scholarly Attribution May 16 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The presentations and working groups were made up of about 60 keen minds to address this challenge. The workshop was purposely held the day before the ORCID meeting because many of the same people would attend both. The focus of the two meetings was quite different. Next week I will report on the ORCID meeting.

The issue of contribution recognition and authorship is much more complex than you might think. There are a lot more issues here than I would have thought and, of course, it depends on where one is coming from – a tenured person, an untenured person, an administration person like a dean or academic provost, the funder, the publisher, an author/contributor in the academic world and one working for a commercial company, their respective bosses, a reader of the article, and so on.

The meeting launched with a Keynote Presentation: “The Collective Author” by Peter Galison, University Professor, Harvard.

Dr. Galison spoke of the ways that authorship is being attributed throughout publishing. In physics, for example, there has been a remarkable trajectory since World War II. Nowadays experiments have up to 3000 people working on them. Earlier there were just a few people. Contributions to the type and diversity of application is significant. When “we found” is written – what does that mean? The “Alvarez group” or the “Thorndike group”– Who is that, the collective author? It is a group that functions without that name, often without a single “lead institution”. This requires complex internal regulation, governance, collective responsibility, and credit attribution.

How should such a big research team be governed? Parliamentary? Dictatorship? What is the system to get 3,000 people to work together? What about knowledge questions? Have we proved this? In recent CERN announcements, there was disagreement among the group. The whole organization is then suspect. Stakes are very high on governance and attribution questions. Spend 10 years on one experiment – a large chunk of your career is spent on it – how do you get attribution? The frontier days of experimental science without government oversight are long over. When the Harvard bubble chamber exploded, it was the end of “free-lance” experiments.

What about attribution? Who is the experimenter who is doing the research? The researcher no longer matches the traditional image of a cloistered scientist working in isolation at his laboratory bench. Some groups put all names in alphabetical order – how do you know who was the biggest contributor? Others put the main worker first and the principal investigator last. it depends on the field. In 1988 the Nobel Prize was shared between a physicist and the engineer, an unusual step in recognizing that the person who designed the tools for the experiment was also very important to research. In 1994, rules of authorship should include organizing the team and going out for external review. Nowadays, some papers have over 2,500 authors listed. How do you know who did what? Is it much harder to evaluate the individual contribution when comparing fields of science? If no action is taken, the problem of authorship will become acute. Therefore, this workshop was to discuss the options.

We need to expand the notion of authorship to include recognizing prerogatives of individuals while preserving the coherence of the group recognizing individuals while preserving the coherence of the group. Who speaks, who takes responsibilities for claims? And in the end – who speaks and stands behind the publication? We are finally beginning to do away with the class consciousness in education. We do need the engineers and the librarians and the data processing people. Credits in a film show increasing specialization. The film industry has many other kinds of awards and roles recognized. They also have distribution of profits from the films based on roles. What will encourage the other members of a research team? Astronomers have a great distribution and citation system called Astronomy Zookeepers, on a site called the Galaxy Zoo.

The need is acute. The solutions proposed are still young. There are so far VIVO, ORCID, SCOPUS, Thomson Reuters ISI, and tools that authors use themselves, like Bibnote.

Marjorie M.K. Hlava
President, Access Innovations