Science, discussed.

Authors Contribution Statement: Essential or Redundant?

More than a year ago, I asked Twitter what people thought of the Authors Contribution Statement on scientific papers.

I was pleased to receive >300 replies in a few days. Although it took me a long time, I wanted to share some observations with you.

First of all, those who filled the poll were asked to provide very general information about themselves, including the stage of their career, the number of published papers and whether they were aware/supportive of the open access movement. I ended up with the following number of respondents

Position Count
Undergraduate Student 2
PhD Student 51
PostDoc 82
Independent Fellow/Lecturer/Assistant Professor 87
Full Professor 53
I left Academia 43
total 318

This internal control provides a clear, and rather predictable, correlation between seniority and number of papers published:


Nothing exciting there, and to be honest, that’s about it for the rest of the post.

When it gets to the topic being debated (“Are authors contribution statements useful/meaningful?”), everything turns into a flat line. The following plot, which I was anticipating to be the most juicy one, indicates both moderate appreciation and mild disillusionment.


The top panel shows the score (1 to 5 – low to high, respectively) given to the importance of the authors contribution statement. The bottom panel shows the score given when people where asked if there is any real difference between authors contribution statement and authors’ list. Two flat lines. Digging more into individual answers shows that, for some, the authors contribution statement is the opportunity to put things straight, stating who has done what.

I think that with the rise of the many first-author slots on manuscripts now, it is very important to plainly recognize the contribution of each of the authors given that one author may have been intimately involved in the conception, planning, and execution while another may have only been following carefully executed orders from those other contributors. There is a difference and that difference should be known.
Important to know who has done what. There is a very big difference in a paper where the first author has done all the work, and a paper where the final author did most the work and wanted to be last so the first author has obtained a first author paper without doing very much work. This difference in first authorship papers should be acknowledged.
(PhD Student)


But the bulk of respondents can be classified in two groups: indifferent and disillusioned, almost independently on the career stage. Let’s start with some examples of the latter:

In my experience, full professors do not like to include the ‘Authors Contribution’ statement, while it is considered important from the youngest of the research group.
While an author contribution statement is nice in theory, it is not meaningful in practice. In the current system, there is inconsistency in how people decide who will be listed as authors, no matter what their contribution;  I think further parsing the “contribution” is not likely to change that. Different organizations and P.I.’s will consider different thresholds.  More data is not always the same as more precision (would that it were so!).
(I left Academia)
Would be curious to see how often people believe what’s written in the Authors Contrib. statement. I don’t see many that read “X hasn’t returned any of our emails, but gave us a few samples 5 years ago and is politically important in our field”.
Statements are a good idea, but are often a fiction, especially when there’s gift authorship. They can at least identify who did most of the work.
Authors contribution can cause issues when senior author hasn’t contributed anything but has hosted lead author in their lab.


While here come the indifferent:

My university adopted this “author contribution form” as a requirement when we submit a paper for review. I ignore it, and believe everybody else ignores it too. Why waste my time with that since I don’t even know whether the paper will be accepted or not?
there is no real information in most author contribution statements. In my opinion they’re useless.
I honestly couldn’t care less about the author contributions.


I originally turned to the twitterpshere for answers after I had witnessed interesting dynamics regarding the authors contribution statement, either directly, or via close friends and collaborators. Rather disappointingly, the outcome is very much in line with my expectations. The way I see it, an accurate authors contribution statement would expose the very many compromises hidden in the authors’ list. Although gift authorship and “sponsorship” (i.e. hosting the researcher without providing any scientific contribution) will probably come to mid first, helping a student get a first author paper, legacy authorship (e.g. they kicked off this area of research n+1 years ago) etc is also widespread. With exceptional timing, a preprint manuscript entitled “Patterns of authors contribution in scientific manuscripts” has been submitted to arXiv a couple of weeks ago: the contribution of first and last authors is relatively predictable, everything in between, however, is rather blurred.

The aim of this poll was to sample what scientists make of this opportunity. If I were to summarise its outcome, it would be in the form of a question: Is the authors contribution statement an opportunity after all?
It would be great to see more discussion happening here, hopefully with the contribution of any scientific journal that feels like sharing their first-hand experience on the topic.


The raw data are available here, if anyone fancies doing some more digging (log data and comments have been removed).



About Pietro Gatti

Interested in discussing (good) Science Lover of coffee & good films. Ideas all & only my own.

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This entry was posted on 25/09/2016 by in policy, Science, Science and Society and tagged , , , .


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