More disciplines must embrace a system of academic credit that rewards a greater range of roles more specifically, says Alex Holcombe.
We graduate students flocked to our department’s ‘sherry hour’ — it meant free drinks. As I fished around in the beer bucket, a friendly professor struck up a conversation. He needed a programmer, and my skills fit the bill. He offered to pay. I could have used the money, but knew that dollars wouldn’t get me a professorship. For that, what I needed was authorship.
But the professor told me that “just programming” did not merit authorship. According to the journals in our field, becoming an author required participation in the conception or design of the experiment, the data analysis and interpretation, and the writing. These roles were already spoken for. So, the next day, I was back in my adviser’s lab, conducting experiments and writing them up — doing what I had to do to get my name on papers. Twenty years on, to my chagrin, I resemble that professor from sherry hour. I’m too busy to do everything myself, so I’m looking for someone who can program.
The shortage of researchers with specialized skills, such as programming, should ease if more journal publishers adopt a better way to document who does what in research: a function provided by the machine-readable classification system CRediT (the Contributor Roles Taxonomy). Launched in 2014, CRediT allows contributors to report the specific tasks (such as data collection or statistics) they performed in a paper’s production. We need to make this routine across most of the sciences.