Who gets the credit for scientific discoveries? Seniority and gender are significant

Scientists are not lonely geniuses. They work in teams, and teams sometimes team up together for bigger projects, as when big data or facilities need to be shared. And yet it is not teams, but individuals who build their careers based on the reputation they get from the papers they publish or the patents they file (which can bring in handsome money, too). Over the past few years, the importance of individual scientific credit has been magnified by the increasing availability of bibliometric data, and by the economic value attached to it by pervasiveness of evaluation efforts, whether by national agencies such as REF in the UK or VQR in Italy, or administrators within universities.And yet it is even difficult for members of a team to agree on who contributed most to achieving a publishable result or an invention. New research presented at the European Policy for Intellectual Property (EPIP 2015) conference in Glasgow, organized by CREATe (Research Councils UK Copyright Centre), explores the distribution of credit within research teams.

Author Francesco Lissoni suggests that the private solution scientist teams find to the problem of how to share the credit for their collective achievement consists of negotiating the “attribution rights” that go with it, namely authorship for publications and inventorship (being named as an inventor) for patents.

To the extent that in some fields the position of authors in the publication by-line matters, first vs middle and last authorship can be negotiated, too. The sociological and economic literature on science suggests that junior scientists will attach more value to be first authors, as being a leading author matters most in early career stages; while senior scientists, whose reputation is established, may decide they can get more by investing in patents and commercialization. Therefore, we may expect they will be ready to trade one attribution right for another in order to maximise their private returns from scientific credit bestowed on them by society. Expectations on the outcome of the negotiation may also affect the decision to join a team, or to accept a member in it.

The study examines these issues with a theoretical model and an empirical analysis of “double disclosure” instances (the same research result is both published and patented). In the model, senior (mostly male) and junior (including female) scientists decide whether to collaborate over an extended time horizon and bargain over the allocation of attribution rights. Seniors make take-it-or-leave-offers, which juniors can either accept or sanction by exiting the team. Theoretical equilibria are found in which juniors trade inventorship for authorship, and opt to stay in the team. The study tests these theoretical predictions against an original dataset of “patent-publication pairs” produced by academics in seven European countries from 1997 to 2007. Younger and female authors are found to be more likely than older and male ones not to appear on patents, irrespective of the country and the technological field. First authors are more likely than middle authors to appear on patents, but when excluded they are less likely to quit the team, which we interpret as a sign of compliance with a successful negotiation outcome over attribution rights.

The study’s author Francesco Lissoni stated, “Our results ring an alarm bell for all evaluators, national or local who, attach too great an importance to individual performance measures, and ignore the crucial role of teams both in producing science and in administering the credit one can get from it.“


Notes for editors: ‘Double Disclosures and the Negotiation of Scientific Credit in Research Teamsby Francesco Lissoni is a paper presented at the European Policy for Intellectual Property (EPIP) Conference, University of Glasgow, 2-3 September 2015.  For more information visit: http://www.epip2015.org/Francesco Lissoni is Associate Professor at GREThA, the Group of Theoretical and Applied Research in Econoomics of the University of Bordeaux, France.

For further information contact the author Francesco Lissoni (email: francesco.lissoni@u-bordeaux.fr) or the CREATe PR team (email: contact@create.ac.uk)

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