PLOS Collaborates on Recommendations to Improve Transparency for Author Contributions

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In a new report, a group convened by the US National Academy of Sciences and including a dozen journal editors reflects on authorship guidelines and recommends new ways to make author contributions more transparent.

What does it mean to be author number seven on a twenty-five–author article?

Establishing transparency for each author’s role in a research study is one of the recommendations in a report published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by a group led by Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences. The recommendations issued by this group, which included one of us, were adapted based on community feedback and peer review from an original draft presented as a preprint. PLOS supports the recommendations for increased transparency and has already put some of them in practice.

A more systematic description of author contributions is a prerequisite to providing due credit for roles that are instrumental to the research enterprise, especially those roles that are too often ignored or devalued. For example, collecting, curating and sharing a dataset or developing a new methodological approach that can be reused by others are key contributions that may not always land a ‘first author position’ but have applications beyond a single article and deserve recognition.

Transparency also brings more accountability to a system where questionable and even detrimental practices (such as guest, ghost or conscripted authorship) have been documented. While transparency requirements cannot entirely eliminate abuse, transparent description of individual author contributions can deter inaccurate representations and can expose institutionalized authorship practices that should be questioned.

Paradoxically, a concern often heard about emphasizing contributions is that they risk diluting individual author responsibility for the overall integrity of a study. The recommendations address this concern by stipulating authorship standards that require each author to be “personally accountable for [their] own contributions and to ensure that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work, even ones in which the author was not personally involved, are appropriately investigated, resolved, and the resolution documented in the literature.” Thus, having one’s contributions precisely described does not absolve any author of responsibility for the accuracy and rigor of the entire study.

The paper also recommends mechanisms by which publishers can bring a minimum level of standardization to the description of author contributions. In particular, the group advocates for the implementation of ORCID identifiers and the CRediT taxonomy as emerging standards in the industry. While many journals already require specification of author contributions, a more fully integrated system of persistent identifiers (like ORCID iDs for authors and DOIs for articles) connected via a standardized vocabulary of relationships (like the CRediT taxonomy for contributions) will make the information both human- and machine-readable and allow it to be surfaced more easily.

PLOS journals have adopted both ORCID and CRediT since 2016; the roles and ORCID iDs provided by authors are now visible with one click on the author name in the by-line. ORCID information is passed on to CrossRef, which updates ORCID records with authors’ permissions.

In our experience, the CRediT taxonomy has worked well, but the definition of some individual terms could be improved. In particular, those related to data may benefit from some refinement to distinguish generation of data from its subsequent curation. As others examine the possibility of using the taxonomy, we encourage a collaborative approach with CASRAI’s CRediT Committee, the taxonomy steward, to match the needs of different communities.

Not all roles in the CRediT taxonomy immediately qualify a participant for authorship; that qualification is determined by journal policy. To determine who should be an author, PLOS currently follows the recommendation established by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) for medical journals which posits that authorship should be associated with a substantive intellectual contribution as well as participation in drafting or revising the manuscript. While PLOS Medicine checks that all four ICMJE criteria are met by all authors, the experience at other PLOS journals indicates that in fields outside medicine, not all authors state they have participated in the drafting or revising of the manuscript. The proposed adaptation of authorship criteria in the current PNAS report, which includes writing as a qualification for authorship but does not require it, aims not to exclude important contributors from authorship. Conversely, the inclusion of writing without other intellectual contribution to a study as a role worthy of authorship may not find acceptance in all disciplines. The intent is not to impose a monolithic approach to authorship, but to accommodate a broad range of community standards transparently. When contributors do not meet authorship criteria, CRediT can also serve to document their precise contributions as acknowledged colleagues, supported by other means of credit like citations of protocols and datasets.

On a new website, the report’s authors commit to reflect upon and improve current authorship guidelines and practices at the journals they represent, and they encourage other journals to do the same. Such introspection and subsequent discussion are timely, as research studies are increasingly large-scale and multi-disciplinary affairs. As more work goes into providing due credit for scholarly contributions like methods development, data collection and data sharing, transparency in authorship roles should advance in tandem.

Competing Interests Disclosure: Veronique Kiermer is an author of the recommendations discussed and Chair of the ORCID Board. Larry Peiperl serves on the ICMJE.


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