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Opinion: Authors overestimate their contribution to scientific work, demonstrating a strong bias

Teamwork is an essential component of science. It affords the exchange of ideas and the execution of research that can entail high levels of complexity and scope. Collaborative science also leads to higher-impact publications relative to single-authored research projects (1). Published articles are a key product of scientific work, bearing considerable impact on researchers' academic stances and scientific reputations (2).

Noa Herz, Orrie Dan, Nitzan Censor, and Yair Bar-Haim

PNAS March 24, 2020 117 (12) 6282-6285

 

Teamwork is an essential component of science. It affords the exchange of ideas and the execution of research that can entail high levels of complexity and scope. Collaborative science also leads to higher-impact publications relative to single-authored research projects (1). Published articles are a key product of scientific work, bearing considerable impact on researchers' academic stances and scientific reputations (2). As such, determination of the relative contribution of each coauthor to the collaborative work is of much significance, and is often reflected in the order of the authorship byline or in comments describing the differential contribution of each of the coauthors to the article (3).

 

Although the scientific community is aware of the challenges associated with accrediting relative contribution in multiauthored papers (4) and scientific journals have developed guidelines to promote more responsible authorship allocation (57), almost any researcher who has published a coauthored article is well-aware of the emotional and political undercurrents associated with sorting out the relative contribution to a publication. While previous work has concentrated on elucidating the problems associated with credit allocation (810) and on developing quantitative tools to determine degree of contribution (411), scholars have not studied authors' subjective evaluations of their own and their coauthors' contributions to coauthored publications. Biased perception of the magnitude of one’s own relative to others’ contribution to scientific work can set the stage for dissatisfaction, disputes, and setbacks to collaborative work.

 

Our research has found that, regardless of an author’s placement in the order of article authorship, most authors possess deep-rooted biases regarding how much they’ve actually contributed to a collaborative work. Psychological research has delineated the existence of self-serving biases in teamwork (1213). Here, we demonstrate that such bias also exists in the context of perceived personal contribution to published scientific teamwork and show that these biases run deep and wide—perhaps not surprisingly, given their robust emotional and practical implications (14). The results suggest that the science community, including journals and higher education, should raise awareness and take action to lessen this bias across the research enterprise.

 

See https://www.pnas.org/content/117/12/6282

Figure: Authors often have an outsized estimate of their contributions to a given paper. Image credit: Dave Cutler (artist).

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