Swap authorship for ‘movie credits’ approach, academics suggest

Listing all contributors would avoid damaging rows and properly reflect work of scholars, says elite European university group

September 11, 2023
Actor takes a bow on the stage
Source: istock

The idea of “authorship” could be abolished in many academic disciplines with researchers instead listed as “contributors” in “movie-style credits” at the end of a published paper, a leading university group has suggested.

Calling for more transparency on the roles carried out by researchers listed on scholarly papers, the advice paper from the League of European Research Universities (Leru) proposes that the notion of an “author” has become obsolete in those research fields where dozens of authors – or sometimes hundreds – are listed on a published paper.

In one of several bold proposals, it suggests the “role of authorship completely disappears”.

Instead, “there are only contributors, and each contribution is clearly described”, says the paper, adding: “This would resemble the credits shown at the end of a movie, where every function is listed.”

While acknowledging that “this concept might feel to be too far away from realisation to be practical at present”, the paper explains this would help to solve disagreements about who qualifies for authorship and who is listed as a contributor, or in acknowledgements, or not at all.

“The advantage of this system is that the cut-off for authorship versus contribution, or versus acknowledgement, disappears: every contribution is described in detail and credited, also the ones that were of a supportive or analytical nature that would normally not qualify for authorship,” it explains.

Frits Rosendaal, professor of clinical epidemiology at Leiden University, who co-authored the Leru paper, admitted that some of the group’s members had considered the proposal “a little wild”, but he believed it “made sense” for some disciplines where the concept of authorship had been stretched to breaking point.

“For some disciplines, like philosophy or language science, where the author is wordsmithing the paper, authorship is still important. In others, the idea of an ‘author’ holding a fountain pen above a page has blatantly gone,” explained Professor Rosendaal.

“In my own field, you might have many authors listed on a paper, but the words are simply there to guide you to the tables of data in the paper. In some respects, researchers are more ‘reporters’ of what we see, not ‘authors’.”

The advice paper also suggests that each contributor could be given a paragraph at the end of a paper to describe their contribution in their own words.

“Science should not be treated like a football match where someone wins,” said Professor Rosendaal. “It’s more like the Royal Philharmonic, where people come together to produce a piece of music. You need everyone and even the person who plays the triangle should be named in the programme.”


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Reader's comments (4)

LERU need to keep up with their research, this is already happening. CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) - https://credit.niso.org/
Interesting piece and to see this. Wonder if the LERU team are aware of the Contributor Role Taxonomy (CRediT) that was developed to help resolve this issue in some small way - now a NISO ANSI standard and used by many publishers (see https://credit.niso.org/). Also see article here that sets our the use case https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/leap.1210
Looking at the full report: https://www.leru.org/files/Publications/2023.09.08_Authorship-paper_fullpaper_DEF.pdf I see that there is in fact much reference to CRediT (the Contributor Role Taxonomy: https://credit.niso.org/ ). So that is great news, hoping that this will drive even more uptake.
Good idea for the hard sciences, where publications tend to be reports of experiments and other results. Not sure it's suitable for more theoretical subjects, such as maths, physics, Arts & Humanities and some social sciences, where academia trades in original ideas rather than discoveries.