New Algorithm Gives Credit Where Credit is Due

Robert Gray Dodge Chair Installation Ceremony: Laszlo Barabasi

It makes sense that the credit for sci­ence papers with mul­tiple authors should go to the authors who per­form the bulk of the research, yet that’s not always the case.

Now a new algo­rithm devel­oped at Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research helps sheds light on how to prop­erly allo­cate credit.

The research was pub­lished this month in Pro­ceed­ings of the National Academy of Sci­ences in a paper co-​​authored by Hua-​​Wei Shen, a vis­iting scholar at North­eastern and asso­ciate pro­fessor at the Insti­tute of Com­puting Tech­nology at the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences, and Albert-​​László Barabási, the Robert Gray Dodge Pro­fessor of Net­work Sci­ence and a Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor at Northeastern.

Using the algo­rithm, which Shen devel­oped, the team revealed a new credit allo­ca­tion system based on how often the paper is co-​​cited with the other papers pub­lished by the paper’s co-​​authors, cap­turing the authors’ addi­tional con­tri­bu­tions to the field.

The idea behind this is that based on an author’s pre­vious line of work, people have a per­cep­tion of where the credit lies,” explained Barabási, the director of the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research. “And the algorithm’s goal is simply to extract that perception.”

To test its hypoth­esis, the team looked at Nobel prize-​​winning papers in which the Nobel com­mittee and the sci­ence com­mu­nity decided to whom the pri­mary credit for a dis­covery should go. In 81 per­cent of the papers related to physics, chem­istry, and med­i­cine that they looked at, the credit allo­ca­tion algo­rithm found that the authors deserving of the most credit cor­re­sponded to the Nobel laureate.

In all, the team looked at 63 prize-​​winning papers using the algo­rithm. In another finding, the algo­rithm showed physi­cist Tom Kibble, who in 1964 wrote a research paper on the Higgs boson theory, should receive the same amount of credit as Nobel prize win­ners Peter Higgs and François Englert.

A world-​​​​renowned net­work sci­en­tist, Barabási has joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence at North­eastern. The paper builds upon his research in the sci­ence of suc­cess, which uses a math­e­mat­ical model for quan­ti­fying the long-​​term suc­cess of indi­vidual researchers.

Barabási explained that the tra­di­tional system of credit allo­ca­tion varies depending on the field of research, and being the first author listed on a paper does not mean that person would receive the most credit. In biology, for example, the authors listed first and last on a paper are gen­er­ally the one’s who receive credit while in physics the author list is often alphabetical.

If you are not an insider in the field, you have absolutely no idea who should get the credit for the paper,” Barabási said.

While the sci­ence com­mu­nity is usu­ally cor­rect when allo­cating credit to authors, some­times credit can go to the wrong person. In their paper, the researchers wrote that “the ability to accu­rately mea­sure the rel­a­tive credit of researchers could poten­tially impact hiring, funding, and promotions.”

Barabási also noted this new algo­rithm could help pro­fes­sors from dif­ferent dis­ci­plines who col­lab­o­rate on a research paper deter­mine to whom the com­mu­nity would credit the paper.