The Film Credit Model of Authors

AGU is moving towards the adoption of a new step in paper publication, assigning contribution roles to the names in the author list. At some point in the “near future,” you as an author will be asked to go through your author list designate who did what for the study. I don’t know when this will happen, but Brooks Hanson, a Senior VP of AGU, is a coauthor on this paper and AGU is gearing up to implement contribution designations. I also don’t know if this will be requested as optional metadata, perhaps as a mandatory submission step. I expect that the research community will have plenty of lead time before it becomes required.

As of now, AGU will still have author lists associated with each paper. There will simply be an extra set of information that provides details of the roles for each author in the list. For a single author paper, this is, of course, overkill, but most papers have more than one author and this extra information could be very useful.

But, what if we didn’t have the list anymore?

I was recently told about a rather radical yet intriguing extrapolation of this process. The original article is here describing the problem of paper authorship and the potential for frustration and annoyance at the placement of names in the list. The author notes that the issue is the fact that the authors names appear in a list and that we as a research community ascribe certain meaning to people’s placement within that list. The suggested solution is summed up in this graphic:


No more first author. No more last author.

They call this is the film credit model of authors. Names are listed next to the roles, jobs, or functions they performed to contribute to the final product. Who is first author of a film? As an example, for The Martian, is it Damon et al. (highlighting the lead actor), or maybe Scott et al. (highlighting the director), or perhaps Goddard et al. (highlighting the executive producer)? We never say any of these. Could that be the case with scholarly articles someday?

This would change the in-line citations of references, because there would no longer be a first author to name in the text. Reference list formatting in papers would also need to be revised because there would not longer be a clear order for the authors. CVs would change, as we list our contributions rather than just our placement in the author list of our publications. Like I said, this is a radical suggestion. It is also, though, a natural progression along the path that AGU is now undertaking.

I’d like to say thanks to Dr. Shane Hanlon at AGU HQ for pointing out this Medium article to me, via a response to my post at AGU Connect. This website, especially the “AGU Community” discussion page for everyone in AGU, is a place for geoscientists (including space physicists) to engage in conversation about scholarly topics. You can sign in with your AGU username and password. There are some topics, like paper authorship, that span well beyond the scope of JGR – Space Physics. Sometimes, I will be posting on such topics over there instead of here, especially if I pose my thoughts as a question rather than a comment. So, look for those discussions and, if interested, then please start responding and posting on that site.


7 thoughts on “The Film Credit Model of Authors

  1. This is a great idea. It was not necessary in the days when single and dual author papers were common. Now, when experimental papers present results from complex machines, contributions are varied and partial. I encourage JGR to go for it.

    • Alex – easy for you – as a theorist – to say!
      When you are involved in a large mission with many contributors over many, many years, it is clear that some people deserve some recognition for their contributions to getting the data that go into a paper, even if they have not written a word of the paper.
      Maybe we just need some “rules-of-the road” that say something like it’s ok to pack out the first round of papers with everyone involved – and then after that each author should have a contribution.
      But I’m not sure why the AGU really cares…. After 3 authors, only the first name matters. It’s not like AGU is wasting ink, these days.

      • Fran, As an experimentalist, it is easy for you to be overly cautious. The Film-Credit-Model does just what you want –you can list everyone who should get some credit. For the reader it takes the authorship mystery out of papers that lists dozens of people from a number of institutions and countries who were involved at different times covering many years.

  2. I don’t think it is necessary good or practical to do away with the first author altogether. The first author is a good practical way to point to a paper (a doi number, for example, is not very handy in casual talk). Or just the corresponding author that is still needed could become the new first author.

    • My thought is that for fewer than, say, four authors, the Film Credit Model (FCM) would not be used. But the FCM is needed by the time you get to 10 or more authors, two or three institutions, and a project that took years to obtain results, the FCM is needed to allocate credit properly.

  3. In many fields, including space physics, the first author is normally the person who in the film credit analogy would be the screenwriter. When the first author is a student or postdoc, the advisor is usually listed second in space physics, while other fields, such as medicine, traditionally list the authority figure last–either way is fine as long as everybody understands the convention. Going into detail about who among the other authors gets credit for what is a nice addition, but not essential.

    My opinion is different in other fields, such as astrophysics, where tradition dictates that authors should be listed alphabetically. Consider a group in such a field that consists of Professor Jack Horner and two graduate students, Little Miss Muffet and Peter Pumpkineater. All of their papers would have the same author list in the same order: J. Horner, L. M. Muffet, and P. Pumpkineater. Under the current system, if I am not familiar with the Horner group and somebody tells me I should check out the work that P. Pumpkineater is doing, I cannot distinguish the following two scenarios: (1) P. Pumpkineater actually did the work in question, or (2) an old boys’ network is attributing to P. Pumpkineater work that was actually performed by L. M. Muffet. A film credit author list would clarify whether the papers in question are primarily the work of L. M. Muffet or P. Pumpkineater, and is therefore essential for properly attributing credit in fields that insist on alphabetical author listings.

  4. Pingback: CRediT Is Here | Notes from the JGR-Space Physics Editor-in-Chief

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