A Plan to End 'Unfair' Credit

Proposal would quantify how much reward authors should receive on projects with multiple authors.

February 24, 2017

Scholars who publish research with hundreds of co-authors should receive no more than one-third of the current credit they get for such papers, according to a proposed formula designed to eradicate “gift authorship."

Under the proposal, those who contribute to co-authored papers would receive only a fraction of a research credit for their contribution, instead of the full authorship credit that they now enjoy -- when universities or government agencies use counts of papers as part of a review process.

The plan has been put forward by Louis de Mesnard, professor of economics at the Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté (UBFC), amid growing concern over the limited contribution of some researchers on papers with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of co-authors.

With many papers now citing at least 1,000 authors – the current record stands at 5,154 for a 2015 paper published by the team at the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) – critics say that researchers gain undue credit for minimal input into a project, thus making it impossible for universities to recognize and reward true scientific talent.

Some academics have also set up “publication clubs” to artificially boost their outputs, in which a “small group of scholars ... mutually agree ... to co-sign each other’s papers, even if they have not really been involved in writing them,” adds de Mesnard in a paper titled “Attributing credit to co-authors in academic publishing: the 1/n rule, parallelization and team bonuses”, published in the European Journal of Operational Research last month.

To combat the problem also known as “gift authorship” or “byline banditry,' some critics have suggested dividing credits for a paper between authors, which would see, for example, each author gaining a 10th of a credit if there are 10 co-authors.

That approach (known as “1/n”, where n equals the number of researchers) is “too harsh," particularly when those involved in so-called kilo-authored papers would receive very minimal credit for their work, says de Mesnard, who believes that this method would discourage academic collaboration.

Asking scholars to assess their own involvement in a paper and take a proportionate credit is another option, but is “unsatisfactory and utopian," he adds.

Instead, de Mesnard suggests a “completely new approach” called “parallelization."

Under the formula – where credit = (n+2)/3n – if a paper has two co-authors, then each would receive two-thirds of a credit, while a paper by three authors would see each of them gain 5/9ths of a credit.

For papers with a very large number of co-authors, each researcher would receive no less than one-third of a credit.

In the case of the 2015 CERN paper with 5,154 co-authors, this might seem “too generous” but it is “above the 0.02 per cent allocated by the 1/n rule” and “is clearly below the unfair credit of one full paper per co-author," de Mesnard explains.

The approach would give a far more accurate reflection of the research volume now undertaken, he adds. He compares the current sharing of research credit to the biblical miracle of Jesus feeding thousands of people with a few pieces of food as a handful of papers are potentially able to sustain the careers of thousands of academics.

“This new approach is feasible and fair and it credits genuine cooperation in academic publishing,” says de Mesnard. “It could give rise to a new way of comparing scholars, especially for recruitment and promotion.”

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