Dienstag, 23. November 2010

PNAS Editorial: Impact Factor corrupts science

The (ab)use of the impact factor to evaluate the scientific merit of individuals corrupts the way how scientists publish their findings, say Eve Marder, Helmut Kettenmann and Sten Grillner in their recent editorial to PNAS. Moreover, they state that the current practice to measure scientific achievement shifts the choice of research topic to potentially "great discoveries" (read: discoveries which will make it to Nature), although the most important findings in science were made serendipitously, and hence the eventual contribution to science could not be estimated beforehand.

However, in my opinion, the impact factor is only the tip of the iceberg. Even worse is the implicit role of author sequence on a paper. In life sciences, the first author typically is the one who did the work, and the last author is the supervisor or lab head. All authors in between are perceived to be "minor contributors". Of course, this rule leads to all kinds of problems. Fierce battles are fought over author sequence, since for PhD students, only first-author papers count, while for group leaders last-author papers are vital to demonstrate their scientific contribution.

But there can only be one author first, and one author last. Of course, there are "equal contribution" asterisks all over the place, but are they actually been taken into account? After all, how much sense does it make to refer to the deprecated, intransparent and inflexible rule of author sequence to indicate contribution? For example, it is completely unclear how to handle interdisciplinary collaborations, which involve typically at least two PhD students and two group leaders.

A completely fair and unbiased way to state individual contributions to a scientific publication would be to list the authors in alphabetical order and have an "Author contribution" section in the paper, where the individual contributions are described in detail. In fact, this is how many disciplines handle it, for example in social sciences.

1 Kommentar:

Rob hat gesagt…

I love your suggestion of author contribution attribution. You ought to write it into an online petition and, after collecting enough signatures, invite the signers to forward it to their favorite journal. I think it really needs to be done.