Hua-Wei Shen and Albert-László Barabási from Northeastern University have devised an algorithm, which they present in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, that can untangle what each author's perceived contribution to a multi-author paper is.
How author lists are put together varies by discipline. In the biological sciences, the first author and the last author typically receive the most credit. In the physical sciences, though, author lists are usually alphabetical. This makes it difficult, the researchers say, for outsiders to gauge who did the most work.
"The idea behind this is that based on an author's previous line of work, people have a perception of where the credit lies," Barabási says in a statement. "And the algorithm's goal is simply to extract that perception."
In the simplest scenario of two researchers contributing to a paper, Shen and Barabási figured that if author one had published many papers on topic X while this paper is author two's first, much of the credit in the eyes of the scientific community would go to author one. In another example, Shen and Barabási said that is two authors contribute to a paper, and that they always publish together, then they would share equal credit for that paper.
Shen and Barabási note that it's usually more complicated than that, and they developed an algorithm that takes into account more fractional amounts of credit.
They applied their method to 63 Nobel prize-winning papers, for which the Nobel committee had to decide where credit was due. In 81 percent of the cases, the algorithm's distribution of credit matched the committee's.
Shen and Barabási caution that their algorithm predicts perceived credit, not the actual role of the author, and that it relies on citation patterns, younger scientists with fewer papers are at a disadvantage.
Of course, the press release from Northeastern notes that PhD Comics' Jorge Chan had already figured out how to apportion credit here.