Should museum curators’ expert analysis be acknowledged in research papers?

Main Image: Museums hold hundreds of thousands of insects, which hold a wealth of information ready to be utilised by researchers. Photograph from the collections at Plymouth Museum Archives and Galleries. This article was edited on November 11 for clarity

The bold title reads: “The time has come for Natural History Collections to claim co-authorship of research articles.” This serious statement was not from a local newspaper or a blog post. It was the title of a peer reviewed article, recently published in the journal Taxon.

Reference: Rouhan, G. et al. 2017. The time has come for Natural History Collections to claim co-authorship of research articles. Taxon (the bi-monthly journal of the International Association for Plant Taxonomy) September 1, 2017.

It’s clear. It’s simple. It’s a no-nonsense message to museum professionals: curators should be put down as co-authors for publications resulting in work on their collections.

Why should curators have their names on research articles? Why all the fuss? Is it even important?

It is important, and there should be a fuss. Our collections hold millions of different species. They not only show the astounding diversity of life, both past and present, but they also provide historical and geographical information. Museum collections are a unique library of life on Earth. The information attached to specimens, from the locality and date to the unseen genetics inside, is an unmatched resource for scientists.

Museums around the world have thousands of researchers using their collections every day. The work carried out is often published in scientific journals, and is just one example (amongst many others) of the important use of museum collections.


The fact that museum collections are being used so much is fantastic. A lot of the time however, museum managers are not aware of the research: actually sometimes the curator isn’t even aware of the publication! The museum should receive a copy of the article that their specimens were used for: more often than not it doesn’t. The museum should be acknowledged in the published article: sometimes it isn’t. The accession numbers of the specimens used in the research should be cited: they very rarely are.

As a result of these blunders, collections may not be understood or valued as they should be by the general public, or those higher up. Museums need to make sure that best practice is undertaken with any research on their collections, and researchers need to include this as a mandatory result of using museum collections. It should be explicit that:

  • Any specimen used is research is fully cited with that specimen(s) accession number.
  • The museum is fully acknowledged in the acknowledgments
  • The museum receives a copy of the publication

The authors of the Taxon article published recently, argue that curators should be co-authors on publications where their collections have been used, especially if they have contributed significantly. This should be on a case by case basis, where the curators have had a direct input into the research (gathering information directly related to the publication, providing information from the history files, etc).

Skeletons can offer researchers a close look at external anatomy and even DNA. Photograph from the collections at Plymouth Museum Archives and Galleries

Curators contribute a lot of their time to researchers without even giving it a second thought: time to locate the specimen; to prepare the space for the researcher; to supervise and train the researchers in safe handling; to research the documentation and information associated with the specimen. All of this is for the study of that specimen. Curators contribute a lot of time to research.

If a researcher is using a specimen for their work, which results in a publication, I do think the curator’s name should go on that article as a co-author. As long as the curator did input into the paper (through research time, preparation time, etc.), then they have contributed to the research. Without the museum professional’s assistance, the research could not be undertaken.

Even common species, such as this large common frog, can offer insights into geographical distribution both past and present. Photograph from the collections at Plymouth Museum Archives and Galleries

As well as being a benefit to the curator personally by improving their knowledge about research with their collections, there is an enormous bonus in that the research is more visible. Being a co-author on a publications means the curator automatically receives a copy, the curator can make sure the important details are included in the paper (such as including accession numbers of used specimens), and any press or marketing about the paper will mention all the authors (and their place of work). The biggest bonus is that it raises awareness of the importance of collections to colleagues, managers and stakeholders.

This isn’t to say that curators should co-author every publication that results from research from using their collections. Where there has been a significant input from the curator into the research, then it should be an option. I think the important thing is that (in UK museums in particular), co-authoring papers has never really been considered. Researchers should be encouraging this and help to support and advocate for the museums they use. This should be done by citing specimens and acknowledging the museum they use, and where appropriate allow the curator to be a co-author.

All collection areas are important: one is no greater than the other. We all need to advocate for all collections. Sadly, in UK museums natural history has been hit hard by cuts over recent years, perhaps due to lack of understanding of the true relevance of these collections. Let us be as bold and blunt as the authors of the article this post is about. The time is now for natural history curators to claim co-authorship of research papers.