Adventures in Ethics and Science

Authorial pecking order.

Some time ago, PhysioProf asserted that journal articles in the biomedical sciences listing two first authors are misrepresenting the reality of the involvement of those authors.


I’m of the opinion that authorship issues are pretty important. It’s not just a matter of which scientists get to take credit for the scientific advance a particular paper reports, but also a matter of which scientists are shouldering the responsibility for what that paper communicates (plus being involved in the further discourse between scientists about the pertinent scientific questions, techniques and so forth).

The score-keeping aspect of publishing and getting your name near the top of a list of authors is a reality of the way science is practiced in many academic contexts today. Undoubtedly, the simple-minded approach to evaluating someone’s scientific chops (on the basis of the number of first-author publications, or impact factors, or what have you) also encourages a certain amount of gaming of the system.

To the extent that scientific projects are collaborative and that multiple persons have made substantial intellectual contributions to what is reported in the literature, I think the best policy is one of transparency about just what those contributions were. There are journals in which each the contributions of each of the authors on a paper are laid out in detail. Flagging who is responsible for which piece of the research makes it easier for other scientists to direct their questions to the co-author who can best answer their question. As well, in the event of some piece of the project turning out to be … problematic, there’s some sense of who fell down on the job.

Now, within a framework of “explicit authorship” like this, it’s not clear to me that it’s necessary to have protracted arguments about who is first author, who is second author, who is fifth author, or who is sixth author. All of the authors have made a substantial contribution to the research being reported, and each of those contributions is enumerated. Further, it is not obvious to me that it is prima facie impossible for two of those authors to have made contributions that are equivalent and that are greater than those made of any other individual contributor to the project.

In other words, it might really be the case that two of the authors ought to be counted as co-first authors.

Getting clear on the specific contributions each of the authors made in a particular paper takes away the abstract question of whether such a state of affairs is possible. Thus, it mitigates worries of whether the authorship order is being used to mislead about who did the most (or the best) work and brings the audience back to the task of evaluating the work itself.

Comments

  1. #1 Sean Carroll
    December 30, 2008

    In particle physics, author lists are almost always just in alphabetical order, regardless of contribution, seniority, etc. The theory is that every author should take full responsibility, and actually the theory works pretty well. But it is true that one tends to remember the name of the first author.

    Personally, I think trying to convey information by cleverly ordering the list of authors is more trouble than its worth, but different specialties will have different standards.

  2. #2 Pinko Punko
    December 31, 2008

    Are the particle physics papers ones with dozens if not hundreds of authors?

    Aside from that, PhysioProf was wrong on this issue as many of us discussed in the thread there. I think the increase in author number reflects some other problematic stuff going on in biomedical sciences- for example the existence of “supplemental information” in journal articles allows papers to have an inordinate amount of information- and these are amounts that reviewers are increasingly used to seeing in manuscripts and amounts that editors are increasingly demanding. It is totally insane. Labs are getting larger and larger and competition drives labs to have teams of workers collaborating on projects- there are a lot of pressures driving increases in authors. It is tough out there.

  3. #3 Stefano Bertolo
    December 31, 2008

    interesting issue. while the history of this is fairly obvious and rooted on the typographic conventions of scientific publishing at a time when space on the page was expensive, it strikes me as very very odd that such important information be encoded in a data structure as primitive as an ordered list (the list of authors). with more scientific publishing becoming available in electronic form it is not hard to imagine more informative ways of keeping track of these things along the way you suggest. ideally one could imagine a data structure where, for each fragment of the publication (at any desired level of granularity, from the whole paper, down to each section, sentence or even word) you could obtain the relative amount of contribution by each author (58% contributed by X, 12% by Y and 30% by Z). naturally, more often than not it would not make sense to go down to the fullest level of detail but it should be possible to do so if desired. This information could in turn be used to make scientific reputation easier to assess (imagine the case of the scientist who is always second author, but always at 49.9% compared to the scientist who is sometimes first author at 51% and often second at 1%)…

  4. #4 Alex
    December 31, 2008

    I don’t know about particle physics, but my friend in a big astrophysics collaboration tells me that each paper generally has some corresponding author asterisked, to indicate who took the lead on that particular analysis or measurement or whatever.

    The first and last authors (in the conventions of many fields) matter because they usually correspond to distinct intellectual roles: The person who took the lead role in doing the work, and the mentor or supervisor. The main significance of middle authorship is as an indicator of productive collaboration. To the extent that anybody will pay attention to your middle-author papers, the only really important thing is that your name is somewhere on there. Whether it’s second or third or whatever is less important.

    Caveat: There’s a half-way decent chance that a second author actually did something significant rather than being a background character. That person probably deserves some bragging rights, but those bragging rights will be communicated via recommendation letters that say “Dr. So-and-so was a very productive member of the team, initiating and leading work on [insert projects from first-author papers here] while also playing an important role in [insert projects from second-author papers here].”

  5. #5 MPL
    December 31, 2008

    Economics, apparently, lists paper authors alphabetically too. Some economists did a study on this, and found that

    This paper examines whether the alphabetical ranking of names affects someone’s reputation. Overall, we find that faculty members with earlier last name initials are more likely to get employment at high standard research departments.

    Source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6W5H-4RFJ4K6-1&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=0927e5ea3365c54c1b36c781d7497700

    Apparently, even economists, who really ought to know better, are subconsciously manipulated by author order, so author order really is an important issue.

  6. #6 Christina Pikas
    December 31, 2008

    Econ is another field in which author names are mostly alphabetical and to do otherwise is to make a statement. The meaning of the last, first, and in-between authors is definitely discipline- (or sub-discipline) specific. I’m intrigued by BMJ and others that required you to state what each author contributed.
    This also brings up a problem with evaluating authors by their h-index: if you are in a field like particle physics, and your name is like Zucker, then in Web of Science, you won’t show up as being cited (I think), because for cited pubs, it just keeps first author… correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s right.

  7. #7 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 31, 2008

    What you say makes a lot of sense, but nothing is going to change in the biomedical sciences until grant peer review panels, faculty search committees, and promotion/tenure committees stop relying on author order in their decision-making process.

  8. #8 Alex
    December 31, 2008

    Christina and MPL-

    What you say gives me a new backup plan if I don’t get tenure as a physicist:

    1) Change name to Aaron Aaroni
    2) Start doing economics. (As a theoretical physicist, this switch isn’t quite as hard as it would be from other field, and how hard can it be to design a financial instrument that fails spectacularly?)
    3) Seek job in econ department.

  9. #9 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 31, 2008

    ideally one could imagine a data structure where, for each fragment of the publication (at any desired level of granularity, from the whole paper, down to each section, sentence or even word) you could obtain the relative amount of contribution by each author (58% contributed by X, 12% by Y and 30% by Z). naturally, more often than not it would not make sense to go down to the fullest level of detail but it should be possible to do so if desired. This information could in turn be used to make scientific reputation easier to assess (imagine the case of the scientist who is always second author, but always at 49.9% compared to the scientist who is sometimes first author at 51% and often second at 1%)…

    This is just more absurd cockamamie Science 2.eleventy!!11!111!! nonsense. Yeah, you could “imagine” such a data structure–just like you could “imagine” scientists publishing their daily notebook pages every day on the Internet, and just like you could “imagine” scientists discussing newly published papers in on-line forums attached to the papers and archived in perpetuity–but who the fuck is going to spend the time, effort, and resources to *generate* such a data structure in the complete absence of any incentive whatsoever to do so?

  10. #10 costanza
    January 1, 2009

    All schemes to rank authorship become unwieldy for papers published in experimental particle physics where the numbers of authors easily make into the hundreds. I agree w/ Sean – make it alphabetical.

  11. #11 estraven
    January 7, 2009

    I understand I’m a bit late, but pure mathematics is alphabetical too. And, like theoretical physics, papers typically have very few authors: when the author list looks like a telephone directory it’s experimental physics.

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