Incentives and Micro-attribution

You have to hand it to academics -- they have strangely sophisticated imaginations, which tend to produce overly complicated dreams of how systems and people can or will work.

One of the newest I've heard is the idea of "micro-attribution" within papers. The idea is that if an individual contributed a table or analysis or paragraph, each contribution could be tagged in such a way that their individual contributions could be identifiable piecemeal and attributed accordingly.

There are some obvious problems with this, however.

  1. There's no incentive to adopt it, because everybody loses. Right now, if you're listed as an author on a paper, you get full credit (with the first author getting 110%, but that's another matter). Micro-attribution makes everyone involved with a paper a fractional contributor, meaning everyone involved will have contributed less than 100%. In other words, everyone loses some proportion of perceived or possible contribution. On an incentive level, why would academics embrace this?
  2. It can't differentiate between quantity vs. quality. We've all experienced this -- someone, with a suggestion, critique, or edit, quickly makes new insights possible, heads off disaster, or suggests powerful new avenues of inquiry. This may be a single word, a symbol ("!" or "?") scrawled in the margins of a review, or a calculation done right. Yet this person may contribute nothing more, and nothing really identifiable in the final paper. How do you count their contribution in a micro-attribution environment?
  3. It would be expensive to implement. Tagging articles and identifying who contributed what throughout submission and review and revision processes would be expensive, costing time, creating confusion, and requiring systems and tagging experts. In a publishing environment where any added cost is heavily scrutinized, there seems little chance of these expenses being widely adopted or embraced.
  4. It's unclear where it ends. As a former copyeditor and substantive editor, I know there are plenty of occasions when a copyeditor or line editor makes suggestions or clarifications or recalculations that can cause major revisions to a paper. Layout and graphical artists often contribute materials or improvements, as well. Statisticians catch errors or make authors beef up their analyses. Are all of these people now "micro-authors" or "micro-contributors"? What about reviewers who have a similar effect? Are they now contributors? (Even if they're anonymous?) What about a reader whose suggestion later causes a correction?

In short, micro-attribution seems to have upside-down incentives and payoffs. Nobody gets more from doing more work, and everyone sacrifices something. Where is the benefit of this again?