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Drug Monkey has an interesting take on an article that I wrote the other day about publishing in biology.

I find it amusing that in some fields it’s the most important to be first author and in others, it’s the most important to be the last author, and sometimes we publish papers together in the same journals, and the people who read the article – gasp – probably never know!

Drug Monkey says we should let the reviewers decide on the authorship order.

I disagree, though. To paraphrase one of DM’s commenters, the reviewers can’t know who did what.

And, sometimes researchers don’t understand or place the same value on different kinds of work. If they haven’t done that kind of work themselves, they don’t always understand whether it really is work or not. For example, the materials and methods sections of many biology papers will list every company that sells restriction enzymes or PCR kits, but completely ignore the core lab who made the oligos or did the sequencing, the software for graphing or analyzing the data or drawing the figures, or the kind of software that was used to write the paper. If it’s not done at a lab bench, it doesn’t have the same value.

[This might be a way to get around some of the journal requirements. Some journals that require that all software programs that are used must be open source – so it’s possible that authors avoid mentioning programs like Microsoft Excel or SigmaPlot as a way to get around that requirement.]

If anything, I think the authorship wars do science a disservice and cause many people to be left off of publications when they should be included. Usually these people are undergraduates and technicians, sometimes they are programmers. After all, all that person did was to run a computer program, right? And that person only purified the proteins and made and tested the antibodies, right? That kind of work is mindless too, right? (Note: I’m being sarcastic, here – I don’t really mean this)

I liked the suggestion best that was made by the economist commenter, that authorship should be alphabetical.

Maybe it would make the whole thing less contentious and silly.

And we could concentrate more on whether the science is good, and less on who gets the proper amount of credit.


  1. #1 Jeb, FCD
    August 1, 2007

    Something else that needs to happen is double-blinding. Authors shouldn’t know who reviews them, and reviewers shouldn’t know who the authors are.

  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    August 1, 2007

    I think that’s a good idea but in many cases the community is too small for that to work. Usually, people have seen research presented in poster sessions or talks and so the reviewers could probably guess which labs did what.

  3. #3 Drugmonkey
    August 1, 2007

    Drug Monkey says we should let the reviewers decide on the authorship order.

    Actually, I was trying to suggest that reviewers should dissect relative importance of the components of the paper which would then be used by the authors to determine order. After all, they are the ones that know exactly who did what and in what proportions.

    Also note that I used the phrasing “A modest proposal…” advisedly.

    With all that said, I think you perhaps misunderstand or misconstrue the reasons for authorship debates, at least in biomedical science / academic publishing. It is immaterial whether the average reader, lay reader, or whatever understands the particular authorship “codes” in a given subfield. Most people are not really concerned that a casual reader credits their work. The audience for this sort of thing is a very selected population of scientists working in similar fields, who themselves understand the “code” and employ it in assessing an individual’s fitness for a job, promotion, grant award, etc. I agree that the differences between fields is fascinating as is the change over time in the same field. I am not, however, sure that such differences in and of themselves question or prioritize any one scheme over another. As in most human communication, it is only essential that the target audience understands the message.

    love the point about methods sections btw, although in my field it is a reasonably established practice to list the statistical analysis package. not so much the graphing and word processor though!

  4. #4 bsci
    August 1, 2007

    Don’t listen to an economist on this topic. They list authors alphabetically, but they still care about author order! See:
    Essentially, if your surname causes you to have more first author papers, you are more likely to get tenure.
    There’s no clean solution to author order since it’s always complex. I like the work division descriptions at the end of some journals. Now that articles are becoming less bound to paper journals and author names are essentially pulled from data bases, perhaps there’s a less linear and more descriptive way to arrange author names.

  5. #5 PhysioProf
    August 1, 2007

    “And we could concentrate more on whether the science is good, and less on who gets the proper amount of credit.”

    Yeah, and pigs could fly.

    Science is essentially a “winner take all” type of system, where a very few people get the vast majority of the spoils: grants, positions, tenure, awards, high-profile publications, renown. The currency that keeps this system going is credit, and it is delusional to propose anything that requires people to pretend that credit is not all-important.

    Telling scientists to not focus on credit is like telling businessmen to not focus on profit.

  6. #6 Sandra Porter
    August 2, 2007

    Well, I didn’t really expect that publications would ever quit counting as brownie points.

    It is the currency, after all.

    I meant to complain – more or less- about the silliness of deciding whether someone’s contribution was worthy enough to include or not. I think that everyone who contributes to a research finding (i.e. undergrads, grad students, programmers, etc. ) should be included, whether the contribution was making antibodies (ok – this one is personal gripe on my part), making a database, or leading the project.

  7. #7 PhysioProf
    August 2, 2007

    My attitude in relation to provision of reagents–antibodies, transgenic animals, etc.–is as follows: If the reagent is published, you must provide it and expect nothing more than an acknowledgment. If the reagent is unpublished. then you have no obligation to provide it, and if you do, it is perfectly reasonable to expect authorship.

  8. #8 Sandra Porter
    August 2, 2007

    PhysioProf: I agree with you. But it happens sometimes that when you’re a graduate student and you let post docs use the antibodies that you made… well, lets just say, graduate students can be easy to overlook when you don’t want to list too many authors on a paper and dilute the credit.

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