Monday, February 11, 2013

Can Movies Provide a Model for Assigning Scientific Credit?

Imagine if the credit for a scientific publication was ascribed the same way movie credits are.

What got me thinking about this was a reader comment on a paper published in PLoS Biology about author sequence and how to calculate credit for author contributions in multiauthor publications.

Determining author contributions to a scientific paper is an increasingly important topic as the number of multiauthor papers has increased over time. The reason this issue is of concern is because evaluation committees may use author position on a person's publications (along with other measures) as a criterion to gauge their scientific worth and leadership abilities. The commenter suggested that the solution (to the dilemma of calculating credit) might be resolved by using the movie credit model. A post on the PLoS blog also makes the argument for a movie credit-style approach:

"Such a research credit system would have huge benefits for one’s career prospects; and it might encourage more effective collaborations. Moreover, these credits could easily be tracked by scientist or project in a database akin to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). It could provide an alternative to the ever-so-important citation factors as a means of assessing one’s scientific impact. And maybe one day there will even be an Academy Awards of Science."

Those of you who read this blog know I like movies and often use them to discuss, among other things, how women in science are perceived by society. So, of course, I found this suggestion intriguing and decided to delve a bit further. It's not as crazy as it sounds, so bear with me while I explore this idea a bit.

In a movie, there are producers, actors, set designers, cinematographers, screenwriters, and so forth. The credits that roll during the closing sequence list everyone who contributed to the making of the movie. Some contribute more than others and are listed first in the credits, but everyone is listed, from the director down to the lowliest person who held the lead actor's cigarette during takes. Relevant to our discussion is the fact that a movie is the end result of a technological effort involving a team of people making different contributions to the end product, very similar to a modern scientific paper. The movie, however, is never solely credited to a single person or category of filmmaker professional. The success of the movie, which depends on all of these people performing their jobs well, clearly cannot be ascribed to a single person or group of people such as the screenwriters (although some, such as the director, make a more substantial contribution than others). The Oscars and other awards, which are given to honor not only screen actors but also cinematographers, costume designers, and others, reflect the fact that filmmaking is a joint effort of a variety of film professionals.

Unlike other publications that are the result of the sole efforts of a single author (e.g., novels), modern scientific publications often reflect the work of a team of scientists, technicians, statisticians, graphic artists, and others in much the same way a movie is made. So why do all the people working on a movie get credit (which they claim on their resumes), while not everyone who contributes to a scientific paper can claim credit for it?

Interestingly, early movies (before 1960) listed only the director and actors (and maybe the costume designer if it was a period movie), and these came at the beginning of the film. Someone who worked as an illustrator would never get credit; only the art director might be given onscreen credit. The change to listing everyone who had anything to do with the making of a film was due to trade unions. The unions argued that their members should get credit because it was essential for getting jobs on future films and because non-actor artists should be able to list the movie on their resume. Nowadays, virtually everyone who is in filmmaking belongs to a trade union, which looks out for its members....hence, the 15 minute long credit sequences we see at the end of movies.

In scientific publications, the authors are really the only individuals who receive credit for the work and who can list the paper on their resume, even though a number of non-authors may have contributed to the final product, and in some cases, may have made a critical contribution (for example, a statistician who helped with the experimental design). Such people usually are mentioned only in the acknowledgements, where their contributions are lumped all together in what is essentially a footnote. Because of this, non-authors cannot list the publication on their resume....and can describe only their general role ("In 2012, I assisted in field sampling during a study of coral reefs in Indonesia"). In contrast, a cinematographer, an animator, a sound technician, or even a gaffer can list on their resume the movies they've worked on.

The assignment of credit for a scientific work in part reflects the nature and history of scientific research in which the early discoverer of new knowledge, who was the sole author of the paper, got the credit. This pattern held until the early 1900s when more scientists began collaborating and tackling complex projects requiring teams of people. The numbers of authors on a paper increased while each author's contribution became less clear and quantifiable. Scientific studies increasingly involved technicians and others whose contributions were considered insufficient to count as authors. The tradition of all credit going to part of the scientific team via authorship has persisted despite the increase in non-author contributors to scientific research. Some perhaps suggested the idea for the study; others provided the laboratory space or other essential logistics; many collected data or provided technological expertise; a few gave statistical guidance....none enough to warrant authorship or credit for a scientific discovery but who played a role in the ultimate outcome.

Many scientific publications today are produced by multi-disciplinary teams, each with many people contributing in much the same way as teams of animators or set designers on a film. Papers in some disciplines such as genomics can list 100 authors, a situation that is likely to increase in the future. There is even one recent paper describing the Large Hadron Collider that lists 2,926 authors. In such cases, how do you know who did what and who, other than the first author, made a major contribution? Although some journals (e.g., Nature journals) require an author contributions statement, these are often awkward and potentially lengthy. Would it be more feasible to use a movie credit model in such cases or would that lead to even more confusion?  

Could the movie credit model even work for scientific publications? Well, I can see some problems with it, not the least of which would be resistance from scientists accustomed to getting all the credit. At issue would be who should get credit for the scientific discovery reported in the paper and how would this be indicated in the credits? Of concern, also, might be that someone listed in the credits, but with a minor contribution, would claim a greater role on their CV. I don't think the latter would be any more of an issue than it is in the movie business (a lighting technician is not going to claim she made the movie). In fact, it might reduce this possibility. With the current model of listing multiple authors (using an often unspecified method of assigning position*), minor contributors can get undue credit.

Another stumbling block might be how to sequence the credits to indicate relative contribution. The credits could be listed in a sequence of decreasing contribution, much like they are today in author lists, except that their role would be clear (Principal Investigator, co-Principal Investigator, Laboratory Director, Field/LaboratoryTechnician, Statistician, etc.), and people who often are inappropriately listed as "authors" today would be more accurately credited for their actual role in the study. The Principal Investigator(s) (who conceived and designed the study, conducted the research, and wrote the paper) would be appropriately credited as the discoverer(s) of new knowledge. A movie credit-style listing might add to the length of a paper, but concern about length is likely to be less of an issue as we move to primarily electronic publication of scientific papers and away from printed journals.

The biggest obstacle, perhaps, would be coming up with a standardized system that everyone agrees upon and then how to get everyone to adopt it. It would likely take some of the major journals making the move first and showing how it might work. Several have already implemented the requirement for an author contributions statement, which is an attempt to go in this direction.

I'm sure there would be other objections to the movie credit model, and one could argue that it would not resolve the issue of how to quantify credit for a scientific paper. However, spelling out the roles that each person played might make it easier to quantify credit than using some formula based on the author's position in the author list (as proposed by the paper in PLoS Biology). The other thing such a change would do, which seems to be an improvement over the current model, is to allow those contributors who are now mentioned only in the acknowledgements to claim credit for their contribution to the work.

I'm not necessarily advocating a change from the traditional model to the movie credit model. Possibly, such a change would introduce unforeseen problems and perhaps add to the bickering that already occurs in some research groups as to author sequence and who should get credit for a discovery. However, it's an interesting exercise to contemplate how it might work and who might benefit.

The problem of how to quantify scientific credit is not going to go away and will only worsen as the average number of authors per paper increases. We eventually may be forced to consider a radically different credit system that better reflects the complexity of modern scientific research.

*Someone unfamiliar with how authorship position on scientific papers is determined might assume that the lower the position in the list, the lower the contribution and, thus, the less credit deserved. However, that logic does not always match how author position was determined, which can vary from discipline to discipline and even from lab to lab. Although the first author position is typically occupied by the person who deserves most of the credit (but not always), the ranking of the succeeding authors may have been determined alphabetically, for example, when there are collaborating groups. In some cultures, the last author position frequently goes to the person who deserves substantial credit; this is typically the PI who got the funding and who designed and oversaw the project. In others, the last position may go to the person who contributed the least. Consequently, some may benefit unduly from their position while others may be underrated, depending on how the author sequence is assessed relative to how it was actually determined. 

Image Credit: modified image from

1 comment:

Zen Faulkes said...

A few people are converging on this idea. Bora Zivcovic was perhaps the first:

I followed a few years later:

Faulkes Z. 2010. Taking a Cue from the Silver Screen. Science 327: 523.