Acknowledging all science contributors: an interview with Pavel Tomancak
Pavel Tomancak is Director of the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC) and member of the EU-LIFE Board of Directors. He is a developmental biologist working on evolution of morphogenesis at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden.
In a recent Nature article , Oded Rechavi and yourself argue for a change in the current system of authorship attribution in scientific papers. What was the main motivation to publish this article?
We both thought that the current ways of attributing author contributions are inadequate. Too much emphasis is given to author’s order, which is manipulated in various ways (co-authorship) to express something it cannot express.
Author contribution sections are not granular enough and, frankly speaking, rather boring. We thought that in the Internet age, we can do better.
Could you give us some examples of situations where you observed lack of credit to the scientists around you?
I think the main problem is contributions of middle authors, in particular technicians in the labs. Another issue is interdisciplinary work that involves experiment and theory. Although there are accepted habits on how to deal with it (we talk about them in the article), it is particularly challenging to make it known that, for example, an experimentalist made a fundamental contribution to the formulation of the theory. And, of course, vice versa.
In the article, you suggest two different methods to assess authors’ contributions. Why did you choose these two methods? Did you already start testing them? How are you going to implement this in your scientific production?
We came up with the two approaches independently. Myself during a prior discussion of the subject on Twitter. We started implementing both methods already within the manuscript for the piece, but it was at the end not possible to do it under the house rules of the publisher. We wanted to implement the respective approaches with our own pre-prints on bioRxiv. We didn’t manage to do it on time, but this is the way. We plan to do it and it appears that others might as well. bioRxiv is by the way an excellent venue for experimenting with style of scientific papers.
Did Oded Rechavi and you consider any other methods? Are there any other ideas you are exploring?
We did not, but it was immediately brought to our attention that there are several similar initiatives. Most prominently, the CRediT system that introduces a controlled vocabulary to Author Contributions sections. We think that our approaches go a step further.
Members of the EU-LIFE Core Facilities Working Group recently published an EMBO commentary advocating for the citation of core facilities in scientific literature . Your paper is mainly concerned with researchers. How do the methods you suggest incorporate the acknowledgement of other professionals involved in research?
I don’t think that our approaches exclude core facility staff. Let’s talk about my approach, the author citations. As long as you are an author on the manuscript there is a way to indicate what you did, regardless whether you are part of the core team or work at a facility. If for some reason the facility person is not included in author list. Either this should be reconsidered, after realising that several statements are directly supported by that scientist’s work or, and this was suggested on Twitter, the author citations could extend to people mentioned in the acknowledgements.
How do we change the current system ensuring that we improve what needs improvement and we maintain what is working?
Oded and I think that the only way is a bottom-up approach. The scientific community must want to do this.
We saw on Twitter that this is an important and provocative subject. Once again, with bioRxiv, we have an excellent venue to infiltrate the scientific culture with these ideas.
What are the main barriers to be crossed? How can organisations like EU-LIFE help work towards a more inclusive acknowledgement system in scientific production?
By publishing this interview for example. The longer we keep this discussion going in the community the more likely it becomes that at least some aspects of the system will be implemented or new ideas arise. I encourage EU-LIFE PIs to try my author citations or Oded’s personalized narrative of who did what in their pre-prints. It could be fun and EU-LIFE can lead the way.
 RECHAVI, Oded, TOMANCAK, Pavel. ‘Who did what: changing how science papers are written to detail author contributions’. Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41580-023-00587-x
 KIVINEN, Katja, VAN LUENEN, Henri, ALCALAY, Myriam, BOCK, Christoph, DODZIAN, Joanna, HOSKOVA, Katerina, HOYLE, Danielle, HRADIL, Ondrej, CHRISTENSEN, Sofie Kjellerup, KORN, Bernhard, KOSTEAS, Theodoros, MORALES, Mònica, SKOWRONEK, Krzysztof, THEODOROU, Vasiliki, VAN MINNEBRUGGEN, Geert, SALAMERO, Jean, PREMVARDHAN, Lavanya. ‘Acknowledging and citing core facilities. Key contributions to data lifecycle should be recognised in the scientific literature’. EMBO reports (2022) 23: e55734. https://doi.org/10.15252/embr.202255734