Authorship on scientific papers

The academic world has lots of dark nooks and crannies not usually seen by the general public. One of them is the order in which authors are listed on a publication. If you have six people from two or three laboratories collaborating on an important paper, who will be the "senior author." And what does senior author mean? And how do you find the senior author on the list of names attached to the paper? It turns out that different disciplines have different conventions:

Authorship practice varies by field, making interdisciplinary collaborations and the subsequent author lists more complicated. In physics papers, senior and corresponding authors are listed at the beginning of the author list, whereas, in chemistry, the senior author is sometimes the first author on a paper, even if a postdoc completed the bulk of the work. In the life sciences, first listing is usually given to the researcher who did most of the work, both physical and intellectual, and last billing goes to the mentor or person who guided the project and whose grant money paid for the project - the PI. "This new movement toward group authorship ... can get very confusing," says Katrina Kelner, deputy editor for life sciences at Science magazine. (The Scientist)

Authorship priority disputes can be one of the most contentious and unpleasant experiences you can have in academia. I've only had one and by some standards it was pretty mild. I still talk to the person. But one reason for my fairly benign experience in that regard is that I don't care much about it. I have been high on the totem pole for a long time and haven't needed to get my name on a million papers. EEven as the person to whom the grant money is given I haven't insisted on having my name on the papers the grant produces if I didn't do significant work on it. At the same time I have made an effort to get graduate students and post docs on papers, usually listed first if it is primarily their work. The one dispute I had was over whether a a graduate student or the PI of the grant (in that case it wasn't me) should be listed first. It was my graduate student and I held out for that and that's the way it wound up. But it was unpleasant.

That instance shows that even a laid back attitude may not be sufficient to avoid the problem. If we collaborate with another lab or research group, they have a claim, too, and often that claim is counter to a valid claim of ours. Since this affects the careers of our graduate students, post docs and junior faculty I need to make an issue of it at times, although this has happened rarely. If a colleague has a good argument I usually let them have it. It's not worth rupturing a good working relationship. Often I will pre-empt the discussion by sending back a draft that has a colleague's name first, even before the subject comes up.

Scientific journals are starting to assert themselves in this area, particularly over the issue of whose names should be on the grant at all:

According to the guidelines of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), analyzing and interpreting data are the primary requirements for authorship, whereas acquiring funding, collection of data, and general supervision of research alone do not merit authorship. This method of deciding authorship is common, according to Harvey Markovitch, chair of the Committee of Publication Ethics (COPE).

Well, OK. Maybe those are the theoretical rules, but they are more often honored in the breach. While I leave my own name off papers, I habitually put students' names on them, even if what they did doesn't rise to the level of authorship according to ICMJE. They get a big psychological boost to seeing their name on a journal article and it encourages them to persevere in science, an encouragement in much need these days of shrinking research dollars. We are in danger of losing a generation of future scientific leaders and I figure any little bit helps.

As grant funding gets tighter the authorship question becomes more important. Reviewers often look at a publication list and judge the merit of an applicant by where he or she has published, how often and in what journals. This encourages some rather bad habits (the Least Publishable Unit syndrome, for example) but it is becoming a career imperative.

So you thought a scientific paper was just a scientific paper?

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I participated in an REU program this summer, and even at that small scale the authorship issue ended up getting very nasty (there were two other students from the home institution involved that were extremely unprofessional and aggressive when authorship discussions came up) and pretty it became a very negative experience overall. It is really sad how quickly some people will turn on you when they are seeking credit. The point of REU is to try to recruit people into science careers, but if I hadn't already been set on a career in research this wouldn't have helped to convince me, that's for sure...

In archaeology, there's this expectation that co-authors should be listed in alphabetical order. I edit a journal, and I sometimes have to explain to authors that I want the person who did most of the work to be first in line even if she's named Zarah Zachary. Not least as a service to our readers if they want to contact someone who actually knows what the research is all about. Honorary authorship, thankfully, seems to be very rare in my field.

I have never actually managed to get authorship on a paper even in the last position), despite doing the "work" (write proposal, design study, data collection, analysis and interpretation) on a couple of things that have been published.
This is usually for political reasons (I work for a government) and bosses of mine have given the article the "PC check" before submission - and insisted that the authorship was theirs.
Yep, demoralising.

By regular commen… (not verified) on 14 Nov 2007 #permalink

The linked article from "The Scientist" seems to have physics culture wrong. With the exception of the large experimental collaborations (who generally use alphabetical order), the physics papers I've written and seen have all followed what they describe as the "life sciences" authorship culture: "First listing is usually given to the researcher who did most of the work, both physical and intellectual, and last billing goes to the mentor or person who guided the project and whose grant money paid for the project - the PI." Sometimes violated if the PI is untenured and needs more first author papers.

By Ambitwistor (not verified) on 15 Nov 2007 #permalink

Ambi: This may differ with specialty. When I have co-authored with mathematicians they usually do it alphabetically because they are used to having single or two, at most three authors per paper. So in theoretical physics perhaps it is different? (I am speculating; it isn't my field), whereas in experimental, with larger or very large team it conforms more to the life sciences. I think conventions are changing because of the importance of this for careers so whatever is said today may be wrong tomorrow, etc.

Revere-- You are very kind and generous. I, also, have seen nasty "discussions" concerning whose name should be first. And, people discouraged from doing more work because what they had done was not acknowledged in a way that made them proud of their contribution. The sciences are struggling, let's encourage the upcoming researchers!

I've seen a paper with two authors, in biology, where a footnote states both authors contributed equally and are listed in reverse alphabetical order. I've also seen at least one paper with more than two authors where it is explained that the first two contributed equally. This brings us to the next problem. I suppose that paper should be cited as "X, Y, et al." rather than "X et al."...

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 18 Nov 2007 #permalink

More than once I have seen a footnote that "Order of authors determined by flip of coin." Of course, that only works with 2 authors, or really strange currency.

My doctoral advisor had a rule that I have since heard elsewhere:
Authorship is earned by contributing to at least 3 of the following 5 tasks:
having the idea, getting the money, collecting the data, analyzing the data, writing the manuscript. First author is the one who wrote the first draft of the ms.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 18 Nov 2007 #permalink

"Even as the person to whom the grant money is given I haven't insisted on having my name on the papers the grant produces if I didn't do significant work on it. At the same time I have made an effort to get graduate students and post docs on papers, usually listed first if it is primarily their work."

Wow, if only I'd had a PI like that in grad school... :)

One recent approach that I really like is what Nature is trying to do - have an author contribution section, where who-did-what is listed. For example:

All authors contributed equally to this work. A.C. and J.H.H. conducted the observations at the telescope. A.C. reduced the data, and P.W.L. performed the Monte Carlo modelling. A.C. wrote the main paper, and P.W.L. wrote the Supplementary Information. All authors discussed the results and implications and commented on the manuscript at all stages.

This has a lot of benefits -
1) it means that people get attributed for the work they do
2) there's less people who didn't contribute getting authorship-for-the-sake-of-it.
3) it provides an "audit" trail - if you want more detail about, say the Monte Carlo modelling, you can contact P.W.L.
4) it sort of gets around the author ordering problem by providing more information.

It doesn't get the problems of people NOT getting attributed/authorship when they really should (c.f. the comment by "regular commenter" above), but it's an interesting idea, and, in my opinion, a step in the right direction.


"Nasty discussions" should come more often. As an "author" I have seen and done unbelievable things. Last one was I wrote alone a 40-page paper in a major journal. I am credited second. The first author did not write a line, but he is the boss and he is paying my salary. OK??? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is what *real* science is about.

By anonymous (not verified) on 10 Nov 2011 #permalink