Sunday, 1 May 2011

Honorary authorship of scientific articles

In their statement on scientific dishonesty the German science foundation (DFG) explicitly writes that honorary authors are unwanted. More specifically, they write that a co-author should have done more than just provide a desk, or write and lead a project or deliver data. In their view, every author should be 100% accountable for the entire content of the article. In this way, they hope that the co-authors check each others work more carefully.

Accountability vs. visible productivity

While I sympathise with goals of the DFG, these strict rules would hinder scientific progress, thus I cannot agree with them. Writing project proposals and leading scientific projects is an important and time-consuming task, which should be rewarded. The same goes for making measurements available. Building state-of-the-art instruments, calibrating them, setting up a data processing system and validating the data are very time consuming tasks. In case one would not be rewarded for this by a co-authorship, the scientist making the measurements would have no incentive anymore to give out the data and thus every reason to keep the data locked away.

Especially nuclear and high-energy physics is known for its long lists of authors, sometimes up to page. Every detector that is used typically has an expert (or even a team) behind it that build, calibrated and validated the instrument. Also my own field, the measurement of clouds, typically has relatively long author list. This is due to the large number of advanced, complicated instruments are needed to characterize the cloudy atmosphere. Therefore, one needs cooperation.

To combat scientific dishonesty it is important to increase the transparency and improve accountability. The way of the DFG would theoretically result in the highest quality of the papers, as it would force all authors to understand every part of the article in detail. In case of papers involving some number of instruments there will hardly be any scientist that is able to comprehend every small measurement and processing step. Especially, as one has to assume that the dishonest scientist will do his best to hide this fact. In practice, no scientist can afford to check the results of his colleagues so carefully, such a scientist would be so unproductive that the same DFG would never support his research. Thus, in practice, you simply need to trust your co-authors.

Explicit honorary authorships

The DFG-proposal would thus hinder scientific progress and ask the undoable in many branches of science. Thus I would like to propose a compromise, to make honorary authorships explicit. The current list of authors should be explicitly divided in full authors that are 100% accountable for the full text and their parts and honorary authors that are only responsible for their part. In the acknowledgements one could state which author is responsible for which part.

As long as the journals do not implement such a scheme, I feel we have no other option than keeping the honorary authors on the normal authors list. Without science managers and industrious instrumentalists, the scientific machine would come to a halt with a horrible squeaking sound.

This post was first published on my homepage on 28 December 2004.

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