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Robert Thibault

May 8th, 2024

Is group authorship a better way of recognising team-based research?

0 comments | 10 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Robert Thibault

May 8th, 2024

Is group authorship a better way of recognising team-based research?

0 comments | 10 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Reflecting on the challenges and benefits of publishing research under a group name, Robert Thibault argues group authorship, although at present poorly supported, could be an important means of realigning rewards and recognition in scholarly communication.


Imagine working for a company where every employee was leading their own project. They could help out on a colleague’s project, but their continued existence as an employee depended only on the outcome of the projects they led. We’d have a system that lacks task-specialisation and fosters small-scale projects with small-scale impact. In many regards, the system I’m describing is academia.

Many of the people working to improve academic research emphasise academic credit, incentives, and authorship. We talk about clarifying who did what in a published study, establishing what someone needs to do to be considered an author, and updating the definition of authorship altogether. Several progressive journals now require that their publications describe which author did each of fourteen specific roles. That is to say, they include a Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT) statement.

And yet, even among those dedicated to improving academic research, we continue to refer to academic outputs as “last-name-of-first-author’s paper”, for example, “Smith’s paper”. Co-authors will even talk about papers they worked on in these terms. Imagine a football player on the Argentinian national team saying “Messi’s team” won, even though they were part of that team!

even among those dedicated to improving academic research, we continue to refer to academic outputs as “last-name-of-first-author’s paper”, for example, “Smith’s paper”

CRediT statements provide the equivalent of a team roster, but they’re often buried at the end of a manuscript. To promote a more vigorous academic culture that champions open, rigorous, and efficient research, we need to go beyond simply listing what each academic did. We need to prioritise total output over individual contributions. We need teams.

In an attempt to align research practices with our vision for a better academic ecosystem, my team at the University of Bristol ran a series of projects using a group name (e.g., here, here, and here).

First, the specifics. We made it optional to run projects under the group banner. Colleagues working together could decide at the outset of a project whether they wanted to work under the group name. We settled on the name “TARG Meta-Research Group [and Collaborators]” and included CRediT statements at the end of our outputs. Key to our approach was replacing ordered authorship lists with a group-author name and a contributor statement (as opposed to simply adding contributor information while retaining an ordered authorship list). This approach is common in multi-site clinical trials and large consortia in biology, but remains uncommon across other disciplines and within single-institution teams.

Here’s what we learned:

What went well?

Group authorship promoted task specialisation

We needed a statistician for one of our projects. But we didn’t feel the need to include a statistician in every step of our project.  We also didn’t want the statistician to spend time on tasks that they were not specialised in (writing). They contributed to the analysis, were added to the CRediT statement, but weren’t responsible for our written output.

Group authorship welcomed smaller, valuable contributions

During data collection, we recruited a colleague to help speed up the process. Before uploading a preprint, we recruited another colleague that was largely unfamiliar with our project to help ensure the writing was understandable to a broad readership. These contributors don’t meet the ICMJE definitions of authorship. But, they were useful contributions and we listed these contributors’ names in the CRediT statement.

Group authorship facilitated project transfer

A PhD student on a 6-month rotation with our group began a project, advanced it substantially, but was unable to complete it after moving to his next research group. I took it over where he left off. There was no authorship dispute, the project did not linger, and the PhD student didn’t need to worry that his project was all for naught.

What challenges arose?

The infrastructure to publish as a group hardly exists.

Preprints

The preprint server medRxiv doesn’t allow a group name as the sole author. They require that an individual guarantor is listed as an author. Not knowing these rules, I submitted a preprint to medRxiv with our group name as the only author. A moderator accepted the preprint, but they decided to add my name! The author list was now “TARG Meta-Research Group and Collaborators, Robert T. Thibault”. I was alarmed that my goal of providing more distributed recognition flipped on me. I reached out to medRxiv and we settled on listing all the contributor names after the group name.

Conference abstracts

The International Congress on Peer Review and Scientific Publication also wouldn’t allow a sole group author (or for some reason writing in the active voice). After several back-and-forths, they agreed to the group name followed by all the contributors names, as per our experience with medRxiv. When the conference booklet was released, I found they had removed the group name altogether.

Journals

The journals we submitted to were more responsive. After several exchanges with editorial staff, we succeeded at having a sole group author for three publications. Although in one case the production team added my name to the manuscript after I had approved a proof with only the group name. Fortunately, they updated the publication to read “TARG Meta-Research Group & Collaborators”.

Notably, medRxiv, the Peer Review Congress, and the open access society journals we submitted to are all progressive and actively trying to improve the research ecosystem. Nonetheless, our non-standard request was generally unwelcome and fraught with implementation difficulties.

In contrast, using a group name was easy for preregistrations on the Open Science Framework, preprints on PsyArXiv, and conference posters.

Authorship databases aren’t standardised in how to handle group authors

We hoped that all the names we included in the CRediT statements of our group-authored outputs would be indexed in databases, but we accepted that this might not be feasible. I recently checked on PubMed, Scopus, and Google Scholar, and found that these databases identified our publications as authored by any of: (i) just the group name, (ii) all the contributor names, (iii) the group name and all the contributor names, (iv) only my name, and (v) “[No Authors Found]”. Fortunately, ORCID and Google Scholar allow users to manually add outputs to their profiles.

Acknowledging collaborators beyond the group can be complicated

When working with researchers outside of our immediate group, we added “and Collaborators” to our group author name. Although these extramural collaborators accepted our proposed authorship structure at the project outset, a few of them requested we revert back to standard authorship practices as publication time neared. The text “and collaborators” may not provide sufficient credit for contributors beyond our core group.

Did we accomplish anything?

Beyond causing frustration for editors, perhaps not. Nonetheless, if I were to continue in academia, I would encourage my team to follow this route.

To improve any system, we need innovation. To date, academia has been slower to adapt its organizational culture compared to other sectors. For example, while it’s difficult to imagine an academic researcher who has never published a first-authored paper, it’s also difficult to imagine a functional company, think tank, or government organization where every individual is expected to lead the entirety of their own project.

Beyond causing frustration for editors, perhaps not. Nonetheless, if I were to continue in academia, I would encourage my team to follow this route.

Not every attempt at innovation is going to work. But if we pilot and trial several workflows, at least some ought to prove fruitful. It’s my hope that our experiment in group authorship might encourage others to try out whatever changes they want to see in the academic research ecosystem. If for nothing else, it felt good to align our practices with our values.

 


The content generated on this blog is for information purposes only. This Article gives the views and opinions of the authors and does not reflect the views and opinions of the Impact of Social Science blog (the blog), nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Image Credit: leah hetteberg via Unsplash.


 

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About the author

Robert Thibault

Robert Thibault is an Open Science Consultant at the Coalition for Aligning Science. He completed a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience at McGill University and conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Bristol and with the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford University (METRICS). His work aims to make scientific research more trustworthy, rigorous, open, and efficient.

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