Researchers are embracing visual tools to give fair credit for work on papers

Indicating the role each author played can be particularly important for early-career researchers.

22 January 2021

Andy Tay

amtitus/Getty Images

With the number of papers with 20 or more co-authors on the rise, it can be a major challenge to give fair credit to each contributor.

Because large, multidisciplinary teams are needed to deal with increasingly complex data sets and facilities, contributions can range from providing access to specialized equipment to spending months or years planning and executing experiments.

Although the author contribution section of a research paper offers a more detailed breakdown of individual contributions than an author list, it can become unwieldy in papers with large teams.

Researchers have been experimenting with more visual ways to represent author contributions.

In 2019, Nick Steinmetz, assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, proposed this simple contribution matrix.

alt Credit: Nick Steinmetz

The matrix gives credit to authors for contributing to specific aspects of the project, such as conceptualizing the experiment, sourcing and allocating resources, and writing the paper.

A version of this matrix appeared in an October 2020 preprint co-authored by Steinmetz.

The paper describes how the team of 35, led by Tim Harris, senior fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, tracked brain activity using new neural-recording technology called Neuropixels.

alt Nick Steinmetz et. al

In a preprint lead-authored by Joshua H. Siegle from the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, also published last year, the team took a slightly different approach to the contribution matrix:

alt Joshua H. Siegle et al.

Colour-coded contributions

For more detail, variations of colour intensity can be used to indicate whether a researcher played a major or supporting role in a study.

This example appeared in a preprint last year led by researchers at the International Brain Laboratory at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York:

alt The International Brain Laboratory et al.

Simon Wiegert, professor of neurophysiology and optogenetics at the Centre for Molecular Neurobiology Hamburg in Germany, shared his take on a colour-coded matrix on Twitter in December:

alt Simon Wiegert

“In my view, such matrices, or any other way of visual representation, should become standard in research papers – maybe even with a defined set of parameters – so that author contributions can be compared between papers in some standardized way,” says Wiegert.

A useful addition to a CV

Hongkui Zeng, director of the Allen Institute, says the challenge of fairly recognizing all contributions to large collaborative projects is particularly pertinent to early-career researchers who are building their reputations.

“A single, linear authorship list promotes independent research from one or a few labs, and could discourage researchers from participating in larger-scale, multidisciplinary team science projects,” she says.

Steinmetz suggests that researchers highlight their contributions to papers by including a matrix in their CV:

alt Nick Steinmetz

The benefit of this kind of matrix is that it can show how a researcher’s expertise or focus has changed or developed over time.

Standardization is key

Felix Schweizer, interim director of the Brain Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, says a contribution matrix can be helpful for researchers who are on the job market, but they will become more effective if journals embrace them and introduce some form of standardization.

“It would be most useful if there were some generally accepted standard that journals could agree on,” says Schweizer. “Perhaps [preprint server] bioRxiv might be a good standard-setter?”

John Inglis, cofounder of bioRxiv and another preprint server, medRxiv, says that these platforms support the use of contribution matrices in papers. They can displayed in both the PDF and full text HTML version.

Steinmetz says that although alternative ways to assign contributions in papers with large author lists are gaining traction, “it is ultimately still a very small step towards more equitable credit assignment for large team projects”.

He says the biggest catalyst for change will be if hiring and evaluation committees, in addition to publishers, embrace new systems of crediting author contributions.

“I think the biggest criticism that could be levied against [the contribution matrix] is that it simply doesn't get very far in addressing the underlying issue, which is that the people whose names are first and last get the lion's share of the credit.”

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