01 October 2015

Badges for scientific paper contributors

A news article in Nature examines the latest bid to reform scientific authorship: badges.

I completely agree that the problem the badges are trying to address is one that needs addressing: clarifying author contributions. The article describes efforts to come up with a standardized list of tasks that people might perform in a scientific study. I’ve done similar exercises in my biological writing classes. Usually, we end up with about five categories, something like this:

  • Concept 
  • Experimental design
  • Data collection
  • Statistical analyses
  • Writing

The taxonomy the badges are working from is more elaborate, with 14 categories, although the article mentions another group that recorded over 500 reasons (!) someone might be an author on a paper.

The Nature article links out to four papers with badges, each badge signifying an author’s contribution. The badges are standardized, appearing with the same design in both journals.

In neither journal do the badges appear in the PDF of the papers. To me, this immediately limits the usefulness of badges. I save papers as PDFs, and I consider that to be the most “official” version of the paper. If the goal is to clarify authorship, it needs to as integral a part of the paper as author affiliations or contact information.

Turning these contribution categories into badges seems like needless gamification. The article notes that software firms have used badges. This is probably why I have only heard our online learning center talk about badges. That’s been about it.

I’m hesitant about adopting trendy things from software companies. I think too often, you run the risk of investing a lot of time and effort into something nobody uses, and is quickly abandoned a few years later. For example, see this article about how universities bought into Second Life, and where that effort stands now:

I decided to travel through several of the campuses, to see what’s happening in Second Life college-world in 2015.

First, I didn’t see a single other user during my tour. They are all truly abandoned.

Second, the college islands are bizarre. They mostly are laid out in a way to evoke stereotypes of how college campuses should look, but mixed in is a streak of absurd choices, like classrooms in tree houses and pirate ships. These decisions might have seemed whimsical at the time, but with the dated graphics, they just look weird.

The work on standardizing the contributions seems very valuable to me. It moves us closer to to the movie credit model, which I think scientific authorship will ultimate evolve towards, particularly with kiloauthored papers. But I am trying to imagine having “writing,” “acting” and “special effect” badges go by at the end of movie. It wouldn’t deepen my understanding of who did what.

I do not understand how contribution badges add value that you don’t get by simply writing out the contributions in words.

Related posts

Letter in Science!
How common is “co-first” authorship?
When does authorship stop meaning anything useful?
Everybody gets to be corresponding author! 


Chawla DS. 2015. Digital badges aim to clear up politics of authorship. Nature 526: 145–146. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/526145a

Photo by hyperdashery badges on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hey Zen,
You make a good point. This was really the first step or prototype of the system. I've added an investigation of adding badges to our PDFs as well to the preparation for our next platform release, and will keep you informed.
Brian Hole (Ubiquity Press)