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In academic biology, scientific publications are a serious thing. People battle over positions in the author list and debate endlessly over who should be on the paper and who should not.

The funny thing is that sometimes we think that our rules and standards apply to other fields of science and assume that our conventions are, well, conventional.

If they’re true for us, they must be true everywhere, right?


I was surprised, for example, when I learned that one of our (former) programmers didn’t know there was a difference between peer-reviewed publications and the white papers that companies write to describe their technology.

But that’s true for most people. I think that it’s only scientists who assume that this is common knowledge, probably because we work so hard to get those precious publications.

Back to the funny difference between fields. At least a couple of commenters on a previous post were lamenting issues with authorship order. It’s a funny thing, but the order isn’t as clear cut as we think.

In biology and other fields, the most important positions in the list of authors are the first and the last.

For biologists, the first author on a paper is the person who did most of the work and wrote the paper. The last author is the one with the most seniority, who heads up the lab and writes the grants.

In computer science, however, this is reversed. The person who heads up the lab is always listed first and the person who wrote the paper is listed last.

It’s just one of those sociological things that makes collaborations fun.

Comments

  1. #1 Cammy
    July 28, 2007

    How common is it for people to hold the view that first and last authors are most significant? I was just curious, I am an undergraduate research assistant, I currently have a manuscript in prep, but the PI put himself as first author and, although I am the one that collected most of the data and am actually writing the paper, I am 4th author because the other two assistants personally financed part of the project. Does this mean that I won’t look quite so bad for being the last author?

  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    July 28, 2007

    Cammy, what field are you in?

    I bet it’s not biology.

  3. #3 Anonymous
    July 28, 2007

    In computer science, however, this is reversed. The person who heads up the lab is always listed first and the person who wrote the paper is listed last.

    In fact, things are even more complicated. In theoretical computer science, names are almost always listed alphabetically and supervisors/lab heads are not included. In more applied areas, practices vary quite a bit between subfields. I’m not familiar with the ordering you mention, but I’m perfectly willing to believe it is widespread in some areas. Perhaps bioinformatics?

    How common is it for people to hold the view that first and last authors are most significant?

    For fields that don’t use alphabetical order, first author is almost always signifcant, since the other authors can disappear into an “et al.”, but just what it signifies can vary. Some fields pay special attention to the last author and others don’t.

  4. #4 Anonymous
    July 28, 2007

    I am 4th author because the other two assistants personally financed part of the project

    This part sounds really strange to me. I’ve never heard of research assistants personally financing their projects – were they supplying materials or something?

    You should talk to someone with some experience in whatever field you’re in, but this sounds really fishy. Authorship should be determined by intellectual contributions. What these contributions are can vary between authors (perhaps you collected the data and analyzed it, while your PI suggested the project and supervised it), but providing money shouldn’t count. If the money came from grants they applied for, then perhaps writing the grant applications could count as an intellectual contribution, but simply writing a check shouldn’t bump anyone up the authorship ladder.

  5. #5 Sandra Porter
    July 28, 2007

    I’d never heard of using alphabetical order before!

    and I have heard of people financing their own research – but it’s very unusual.

    Anyway, it’s pretty unusual for undergraduates to write papers that get published in peer-reviewed journals. I’m sure that being fourth author won’t hurt your career.

  6. #6 scott
    July 28, 2007

    I am in economics, you usually see alphabetical order. Sometimes authors will switch the lead author position. Of course, it is unusual to have more than 2 or 3 names on a paper and we don’t have labs. I have seen statements that say “author order was determined by a coin flip”. I can’t imagine anyone paying attention to who is the last author, that just seems weird :)

  7. #7 Janne
    July 28, 2007

    In my former university in Sweden (and AFAIK, in other Scandinavian and north European universities) and in my field, the lab head is never included unless they materially contribute to the actual paper, minimally by reviewing and improving the text. I’m frankly a little discomfited by the practice of putting the boss’s name on every single thing that goes out the door, whether they were even aware of the project even occurring within the walls of the institute or not.

    When you see the publication list of people that have hundreds and hundreds of publications to their name, the safe thing seems to be to ignore any publication where they aren’t the first author and assume they have basically had no meaningful input on those works.

  8. #8 Cammy
    July 28, 2007

    Actually it is biology, zoology, to be exact.

    The other researchers bought a lot of our field materials (blinds, ropes, etc), they paid out of pocket and did much of the field set-up (although I did the majority of the data collection).
    I am, however, an REU student that brought a couple thousand dollars of funding to the lab with me from the NSF…I’m not too happy about the situation, but don’t really know how to fix it without getting into politics with the other people, kind of awkward since I am the most junior person and a visitor from another institution also.

  9. #9 js
    July 29, 2007

    In medicine, we nominally have the Uniform Requirements to guide authorship conventions, but the tradition of putting the lab head in last author position is tenacious and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

  10. #10 Pedro Beltrao
    July 29, 2007

    This is why I prefer the current trend (in some bio-related journals at least) of writing down the author’s contributions to the paper. Explicit contributions also should help prevent or at least investigate cases of fraud.

  11. #11 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 29, 2007

    The spectrum of conventions is wider than all the above examples combined.

    Technically, I have over 2,500 publications, presentations, and broadcasts to my credit, including edited on-line publications, peer reviewed conference presentations, letters to the editor, poetry, whatever.

    My coauthorship with Richard Feynman has been republished in several anthologies — and set to music. But it lists only me as author and hides the Nobel laureate in the title: “Footnote to Feynman.”

    My coauthorships with Ray Bradbury list his name first, even though he did not compose the award-nominated pieces at all, nor did I write a single word of them — in a sense, I was merely the editor of phrases that Bradbury had already published, albeit editor at an unusually energetic and postmodernist way.

    My coauthorship with Michael Arbib was rigorously suppressed by him, as he was department Chairman and I a mere grad student. He even took the Teacher’s Guide to the Textbook, for which I was SOLE author, and substituted his name for mine in the next edition.

    My coauthorships with Prof. Philip V. Fellman, including 2 titles recently in the arXiv, follow conventions which I still do not understand, but I feel that he is the author who should be listed first in ALL our work together, going by depth of knowledge of that subject (International Business and Mathematical Economics).

    My coauthorships with many people on the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences are as determined by Editor-in-Chief and founding genius Dr. Neil J. A. Sloane, and his Associate Editors.

    My coauthorship of Dr. Robert Zubrin’s first novel does not show my name at all. He paid me extra to have sole credit on the title page. As a professional author, I’ll take the money almost anytime, rather than the ego.

    In Hollywood, the fights over credit and coauthorship probably account for over a third of all arbitratiuon in the Writers Guild, Directors Guild, and Producers Guild. The distinction between “and” and “&” are crucial in tinseltown.

    My coauthorships with Sir Horace Walpole,
    Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Herbert George Wells, Abraham Grace Merritt, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Dr. William Olaf Stapledon,
    Dr. Edward Elmer Smith, and Dr. Jack S. Williamson are more akin to my coauthorships with Ray Bradbury, except that only Jack Williamson was able to approve, the others being life-challenged.

    Yes, Alphabetical is one solution. But no solution is a panacea. The most published person of all time was a communist institute director whose name went first on over 10,000 items issued by his scientists.

    If the USA did that, Arthur “Ned” Nethercott, as head of the Thomas J. Watson labs at IBM would rank near the top, and the heads of Bell Labs.

    Now, is Bill Gates’ name on everything from Microsoft Research? No. Do the heads of Google put their names on everything flowing from Google Research? No.

    The Web, in any case, has blasted the paradigm of authorship and coauthorship altogether.

    The new paradigm is only now crawling, wet and trembling, from its shell.

  12. #12 Anonymous
    July 29, 2007

    I can top that: I’ve coauthored numerous papers with Newton and Einstein (not to mention Lagrange and Hamilton), using my arrangements of their equations. Sadly, I took advantage of my coauthors’ lifelessness to omit their names from my publications.

    Furthermore, I’m confident that I, Anonymous, hold the world record for publication counts. In fact, my lead is about to increase, because as soon as I hit the “post” button for this comment, my lifetime publication count will increase by 1. I’m sorely tempted to hit it twice, but that would just be silly.

  13. #13 Janne
    July 29, 2007

    As Pratchett once pointed out, Mr. Ibid is probably the most prolific cited source of all time.

  14. #14 Sandra Porter
    July 29, 2007

    Really? I thought it was Ms. Et. Al.

  15. #15 KevinC
    July 30, 2007

    But Ms. Et Al. really didn’t do the work, but she must have a huge lab and she is in to everything.

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