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Digital badges could clarify co-authors' roles
Projectcreditnet (contributor taxonomy): J. Scott, L. Allen, A. Brand et al.; BioMed Central Design (badge designs)/Creative Commons 4.0

Could digital badges clarify the roles of co-authors?

Ever look at a research paper and wonder how the half-dozen or more authors contributed to the work? After all, it’s usually only the first or last author who gets all the media attention or the scientific credit when people are considered for jobs, grants, awards, and more. Some journals try to address this issue with the “authors’ contributions” sections within a paper, but a collection of science, publishing, and software groups is now developing a more modern solution—digital “badges,” assigned on publication of a paper online, that detail what each author did for the work and that the authors can link to their profiles elsewhere on the Web.   

Those organizations include publishers BioMed Central and the Public Library of Science; The Wellcome Trust research charity; software development groups Mozilla Science Lab (a group of researchers, developers, librarians, and publishers) and Digital Science (a software and technology firm); and ORCID, an effort to assign researchers digital identifiers. The collaboration presented its progress on the project at the Mozilla Festival in London that ended last week. (Mozilla is the open software community behind the Firefox browser and other programs.)

The infrastructure of the badges is still being established, with early prototypes scheduled to launch early next year, according to Amye Kenall, the journal development manager of open data initiatives and journals at BioMed Central. She envisions the badge process in the following way: Once an article is published, the publisher would alert software maintained by Mozilla to automatically set up an online form, where authors fill out roles using a detailed contributor taxonomy. After the authors have completed this, the badges would then appear next to their names on the journal article, and double-clicking on a badge would lead to the ORCID site for that particular author, where the author’s badges, integrated with their publishing record, live.

The digital badges reflect dissatisfaction with efforts to include simple published descriptions of author contributions. Most journals don’t mandate such a section, or, even if it is present, it is not standardized—meaning it’s often vague, with not enough detail on the skills, techniques, or methods each author brought to work. Some journals, including Psychological Science, Cortex, and the Journal of Research in Personality, already offer badges that reflect something about the overall study rather than specific co-authors. For example, if the results of the study are proven to be reproducible from other researchers, the article is given a “reproducibility” badge; or, if the authors decide to choose the open-data application, which allows other scientists to reuse their data, the article is assigned an “open data” badge. These badges are “a good illustration of the flexibility of badge infrastructure,” Kenall says, “but our aim with the [authorship] badges is to allow for transparency and credit.”

The parties behind the digital badge effort are “looking to change behavior” of scientists in the competitive dog-eat-dog world of academia by acknowledging contributions, says Kaitlin Thaney, director of Mozilla Science Lab. Amy Brand, vice president of academic and research relations and VP of North America at Digital Science, says that the collaboration believes that the badges should be optional, to accommodate old-fashioned or less tech-savvy authors. She says that the digital credentials may improve lab culture, countering situations where junior scientists are caught up in lab politics and the “star,” who didn’t do much of the actual research apart from obtaining the funding, gets to be the first author of the paper and receive the most credit. “All of this calls out for more transparency,” Brand says.

Kenall says the process by which contributions are assigned to specific digital badges—i.e., “so and so did this”—should be agreed upon by all the authors. “In that way, it’s not terribly radical. It’s just a way of catching the information in a machine-readable and standardized way,” she says.

The Wellcome Trust, in collaboration with Digital Science, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and data software company Access Innovations, has recently created a 14-role “taxonomy” to classify author contributions. An online survey of corresponding authors of recently published articles was conducted to provide community input on the proposed taxonomy. Of the authors who completed the survey, 82% felt the taxonomy presented the authorship in the work at least “the same” (37%) or “better” (45%) than how the contributions were originally recorded. Thaney says that, given the favorable response from researchers and publishers, it would be advantageous to implement the badges using this taxonomy. The Contributor Roles Taxonomy is now being reviewed, and the Wellcome Trust and Digital Science are awaiting additional community feedback from subject experts.

One factor that may initially limit the usefulness of digital credentials is the massive amount of already published research, for which badges would still need to be implemented retroactively. Kenall says that it’s possible to cover those older publications, but that would not be implemented until later versions of the badge infrastructure.

Thaney says the digital credentials may also offer additional job security for researchers, which could lead to social benefits such as funding, specialist training that is required, and respect between peers. The badges could also offer a more detailed, transparent measure of researcher productivity than existing metrics such as the h-index. “I believe that new metrics will be built on top of [the badges]. They will be better metrics,” Brand suggests. “I’m a fan of having a range of metrics.” Thaney adds. “Whether one beats the other in the end, we’ll see. More data is never bad.”

*Editor’s note: The author worked at BioMed Central from September 2012 until June 2014, but had no involvement with the digital badges project.