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What is an “Author”?

There are some die-hards in the comment thread of this post on Evolgen who assert that the only thing that makes one an author of something is the act of writing, i.e., using writing materials to commit language to paper. Preferably English language… Thus, in their minds, there is something fishy about multi-author scientific papers, i.e., only the individual who crafted the sentences of the paper should be considered an author of that paper.


Leonardo painted Mona Lisa. Leonardo is the “Author” of Mona Lisa. People who named it, framed it, marketed it, hung it up in The Louvre and described it in the Catalogue – all of them are equivalent to editors and publishers. They are not authors. Leonardo is. Although, note that he never commited language to paper. For all practical purposes he could have been illiterate, he would still be the Author.

Mozart composed The Little Night Music. Mozart is the “Author” of The Little Night Music. He wrote it down in musical notation, but for all practical purposes he could have just played it and had some court musician (Salieri?) jot down the notes on paper. In any case, Mozart is the Author. Although, note that he never committed language (German, English or any other) to paper. For all practical purposes he could have been illiterate, he would still be the Author.

Many modern music bands are composed of musically illiterate people. They get together and start playing their instruments. After a while and many fits and starts, they come up with something that actually sounds good. They then practice it and in the end they record it. The music is never written down, but it is distributed in the form of a digital file, perhaps as a CD. They are collectively Authors of the piece. Others – producers, recording engineers, marketers, etc. are not Authors. The band members are. No language was committed to paper in the entire process, not even musical notation. For all practical purposes they could all have been illiterate, they would still be the Authors.

When a bunch of scientists get together and talk, they may come up with an idea, which they then refine and develop. They contact other scientists who possess particular skills or expertise needed for the project. The work gets done, with each person doing his/her own part. They all participate in data production, data analysis and/or interpretation. Finally, almost as an afterthought, one unlucky member of the group is assigned the tedious job of writing the paper, i.e., the textual part of the paper. This one person commits language to paper, though the statistics and graphs are a much more important parts of the paper (and much more difficult to produce than text). All the people involved in the process are Authors of that piece of work. If the group hired someone else, e.g., a professional writer (and yes, some labs do that), to write the textual part of the paper, the ONLY person who is NOT an Author of that paper is the ONLY person who actually committed language to paper.

So, where does the confusion arise from? Authorship has NOTHING to do with language. It has everything to do with the creative process. People who produce something new, be it art, music, ideas (including stories) or knowledge are the authors of it. The writing is just one of the many possible ways that the authored thing is recorded for others to enjoy. A novelist is an author not because she typed, but because she creatively invented the story she subsequently typed.

Imagine if 20 or 50 years from now there is no scientific paper in the current form at all. All of science is reported in the video format on places like SciVee or JoVE. The authors of the work turn on the camera and talk about their initial idea and background, then show around the lab, demonstrate their techniques, put up a short clip of something relevant to the work (e.g., animal behavior), display the data and the analysis, then again turn to the camera and talk about their conclusions and the directions for the future research. The YouTube generation, now in their 50s and 60s and with long white beards, watches this and, if intrigued, clicks on another button that shows all the raw data sitting there ready to be mined. No writing is involved at all. No putting language on paper. Yet, all the people who participated in the creation of this piece of knowledge are Authors. For all practical purposes they could all be illiterate, they would still be the Authors.


  1. #1 Eva
    August 23, 2007

    And what about the figures in papers: someone may not have written a word, but contributed an image to the paper!

  2. #2 coturnix
    August 23, 2007

    Making figures is a bitch! A thousand times harder than writing. If I did not have to make any graphs, I’d have had a PhD 4 years ago!

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 23, 2007

    I was at a small dinner party, at the home of a Physics Ph.D. with several papers that have been cited over 100 times, my wife and I (many scientific publications, many short stories, many poems published), a scientist with 2 science fiction novels and one nonfiction book published, and one of the guest suddently and obliviously referred to herself as “a writer” on the basis that she’d started in a writing workshop, but dropped out before it ended.

    None of us criticized her, but later my wife agreed with me: anyone who writes snailmail, blogs, emails, fan fiction, or the like is indeed a writer. Only those who get paid for their writing, in advances, royalties, salary, or tenure are AUTHORS.

    I don’t deny your uncoupling of authorship with literature, but the distinction between amateur and professional still holds.

  4. #4 mark
    August 24, 2007

    The US Geological Survey’s Suggestions to Authors has a section on authorship, including mention of placement in acknowledgments rather than as author. It says that persons who made key contributions to the conduct and results of the investigation should be named as authors, implying that such contributions need not be written manuscript. Routine lab work or manuscript review do not normally qualify for authorship. (I’ve seen examples of USGS not following its own recommendations in this regard, however).

  5. #5 PhysioProf
    August 24, 2007

    Yeah, some of those people were totally clueless on multiple levels. I left this comment over there:

    “‘clarifying the matter of who did the writing, for those of us who would like to know.’

    Of all the things to wonder about the origins of a scientific paper, I can’t think of anything of less relevance than which of the authors wrote it.”

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