Conventions of Scientific Authorship
By Vijaysree Venkatraman
Pardis Sabeti published her first scientific paper when she was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her name had appeared in acknowledgment sections before, but that was the first time she was listed as an author—and she was first on the author list. It was an important milestone in the development of her scientific career.
Sabeti has moved on. These days, as assistant professor in genomics and systems biology at Harvard University, she usually is listed last on papers that come out of her lab. Although students have to earn their way onto the lab's papers, Sabeti admits to being instinctively inclusive when it comes to authorship. Inclusiveness is appropriate, she says, because her students "are always intellectually involved—not just a pair of hands in the lab."
If scientists want to convey this information by the way their names are ordered, the method is similar to sending smoke signals, in code, on a dark, windy night.—Drummond Rennie
In another lab on the same campus, Stephen Kosslyn, a professor of psychology, employs a more elaborate and specific strategy for assigning authorship. Fifteen years ago, a dispute between a postdoc and a graduate student alerted Kosslyn to the contentiousness of some authorship decisions. Once he explained his rationale to his disgruntled junior colleagues, they agreed that his decision made sense. He decided to spell out his system for future collaborators.
Kosslyn employs a points system, which is explicated on his lab website. Anyone who works with him on a project that results in a paper can earn up to 1000 points, based on the extent of their contribution to six different phases of the project: idea, design, implementation, conducting the experiment, data analysis, and writing. The first and last phases—idea and writing—get the most weight. Those who make a certain cutoff are granted authorship, and their score determines their order on the list. Those who earn less than 100 points are acknowledged in a footnote. "It's very, very rare that there's any sort of issue," he says.
Outside of Kosslyn's lab, the apportionment of credit in an author list—typically the prerogative of the lab head—is rarely straightforward. Although most decisions are uncontroversial, inexplicable omissions and unjustified exclusions are commonplace. Everyone in the scientific community knows stories of authors who shouldn't have been, and non-authors who should have been, Sabeti says.
Science historian Mario Biagioli, the co-editor of the anthology Scientific Authorship: Credit and Intellectual Property in Science, says author attribution has always been a tricky issue. He mentions Robert Boyle, the 17th century chemist whose anonymous employees emerged from the shadows only when he blamed them for things that went wrong, such as explosions. Biagioli says that Boyle's leaving his employees names off his papers wasn't violating any ethical rules, because authorship protocols hadn’t stabilized yet.
Today, reputable journals in every scientific discipline have guidelines for authorship, but the protocols still haven't exactly stabilized, and they rarely address author order. (An exception is high-energy particle physics, where the names of authors—frequently a cast of hundreds—are listed alphabetically.) Authors are free to negotiate their position in the author list with their co-authors, says Sonja Krane, managing editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, in an e-mail.
That order matters greatly for scientists in academia, especially scientists who aren't yet established in independent careers. Publication records weigh heavily in hiring, funding, and promotion decisions, and departments, hiring managers, and personnel committees want to know how, and how much, a candidate contributed to a collaborative project. Often, all they have to go on is their position in the author list.
"In the score-keeping that scientists do, first author is the most coveted slot," says Janet Stemwedel, who teaches ethics in science at San José State University in California and writes the Adventures in Ethics and Science blog. Primary authorship is highly valued because it usually indicates who had the idea, who was the "main mover" in the work, or both, Kosslyn says. And because of the way work gets cited (e.g., "First Author, et al., 2010") the first author's name is the most visible to readers. Sometimes more than one author can be "first," indicated by an asterisk or other typographical symbol and an explanatory note. But the person listed first is always the most visible.
With credit comes responsibility: Who is to blame if something's wrong? Typically—but not always—the author listed last is the head of the lab that hosted most of the research. Ideally, this senior author has inspected all the original data analyzed and reported in a paper, notes Randy Schekman, editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Consequently, the last author often gets the most grief if things go wrong—and much of the credit when things go right. "The proverbial buck stops there," Schekman says.
Having one person ultimately responsible for everything in a paper is a fine idea. Yet, in collaborative projects involving diverse disciplines and institutions, it's unrealistic to expect one person to be able to vouch for every piece of experimental data, says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, the parent publication of Science Careers. Some journals now require a senior author from each lab to review all of the data generated by their labs and its interpretation. The result is that in complex projects, there can be more than one "last author" just as there can be more than one "first" author; this, too, is usually indicated with typographic symbols and explanatory footnotes.
In addition, almost every scientific article specifies at least one "corresponding author," indicated by a typographic mark and a footnote. The corresponding author is the point of contact for editors, readers, and outside researchers who have questions about the contents of the paper. Often, the corresponding author is also the last author, but she or he may be listed first or even in the middle of the author list.
For a student who has been left off an author list, it can be especially maddening to see someone included who obviously doesn't deserve it. Also called "honorary," or "guest," authors, gift authors don't make a significant contribution (or sometimes any contribution at all) to the paper, Stemwedel says. Motivations for gift authorship vary; the principal investigator (PI) may think he's doing the recipient a favor, or she or he may think that adding the name of a well-known scientist will improve the odds of getting published in a top journal. Gift authors can appear anywhere on the author list, but usually they're listed in the middle.
Gift authorship is especially damaging when the recipient is a senior author, says Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Anyone who doesn't realize that the authorship is honorary—that is, almost everyone who reads the paper—will wrongly assume that this well-known scientist has performed his or her role in ensuring the integrity of the data. "Sadly, the paper which had so many fathers till then—as indicated by the author list—suddenly becomes an orphan," Rennie says. Sometimes authorships are even "gifted" without the recipient's knowledge.
Contributor, not author
As collaborations become interdisciplinary and author lists grow longer, who did what becomes even less discernible to readers. "If scientists want to convey this information by the way their names are ordered, the method is similar to sending smoke signals, in code, on a dark, windy night," Rennie says. An unpublished 1995 survey conducted by AAAS—the publisher of Science and Science Careers—found that even editors of clinical journals couldn't agree on the meaning of author order. In a culture that requires precise communication, the traditional means of communicating author's contributions is "scarcely scientific," Rennie says.
So in 1996, Rennie proposed a solution: Each manuscript should contain a clear description of each author's contribution. The team should identify a leader to reassure readers and editors that someone is accountable. Because they describe their roles in print for all to see, the authors can't change their stories later. Top medical journals such as JAMA, The Lancet, British Medical Journal, and Radiology adopted Rennie's proposal.
From an accountability standpoint, the JAMA system would seem to have few disadvantages; Biagioli says the move from "author" to "contributor" has been by far the most innovative step toward transparency in publishing research results. There can be no ethical argument against such explicit authorship, Stemwedel of San José State agrees. Yet the built-in ambiguity of the present system might hold appeal for some, depending where they are in the power structure. For instance, if the last author is a big name, readers could easily assume that the senior scientist provided the intellectual firepower, even if the first author did the heavy lifting, Stemwedel says. Furthermore, agreeing who came up with which fraction of a big idea can be difficult, she adds.
The shift toward a more explicit listing of authorial roles seems likely to continue, but the situation may never completely clarify. Authorship conventions may forever remain specific to the ecologies of particular disciplines, Biagioli says. Schekman adds that journals may never standardize authorship conventions. New entrants to the world of research likely will continue to grapple with the ambiguities of the current system, negotiating for an appropriate spot on the author list.
"Working out relative importance of each person's contribution to the research will still be a judgment call," Stemwedel says. Documenting each author's contribution to the project is good practice, even if a journal doesn't require it, Biagioli advises. A bit of introspection can make the process go more smoothly, says Stemwedel, so "don't wait to for a manuscript to be drafted. At the very beginning of the project, sit down with the members of the team and the PI to discuss which part you plan to take responsibility for." "Revisit this idea at periodic intervals," Biagioli says, so that no one will be surprised to find themselves left off the list, or listed in the middle on a project that they once thought of as theirs.
More from Careers
When it comes to the fact that who should be an author and who should not be offered ghost authorship, it seem we are all in agreement. Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take responsibility for the content. Authorship credit should be based only on substantial contributions to (a) conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data; and to (b) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and on (c) final revision of the version to be published. Conditions (a), (b), and (c) must all are met.
However, when it comes to the sequence of authorship there seems to be a grey zone and exploitation at both ends of the spectrum. We have come across aggrieved Unit Chiefs and displeased residents in almost equal numbers. It is important for young authors to understand that there are two positions that count, the first author and the last author. Attached to either position is the status associated with being the author for correspondence. The best combination when one is young is to be first author and the author for correspondence. As one’s career progresses, being last author and author for correspondence signals that this is a paper from one’s Unit, he/she is the main person responsible for its contents, and a younger colleague has made major contributions to the paper, hence he/she is designated as the first author. The guidelines here are not as well defined as for authorship in general, Riesenberg and Lundberg have made certain very important and simple suggestions to decide the sequence of authorship:
The first author should be that person who contributed most to the work, including writing of the manuscript
The sequence of authors should be determined by the relative overall contributions to the manuscript.
It is common practice to have the senior author appear last, sometimes regardless of his or her contribution. The senior author, like all other authors, should meet all criteria for authorship.
The senior author sometimes takes responsibility for writing the paper, especially when the research student has not yet learned the skills of scientific writing. The senior author then becomes the corresponding author, but should the student be the first author? Some supervisors put their students first, others put their own names first. Perhaps it should be decided on the absolute amount of time spent on the project by the student (in getting the data) and the supervisor (in providing help and in writing the paper). Or perhaps the supervisor should be satisfied with being corresponding author, regardless of time committed to the project.
A sensible policy adopted by many supervisors is to give the student a fixed period of time (say 12 months) to write the first draft of the paper. If the student does not deliver, the supervisor may then write the paper and put her or his own name first.
The second issue raised in this letter is about the use of plurals. Our insistence of avoiding pronouns I, me and mine in all publications is very sound and logical. Even if it is a single author paper, surgery is a team game and we are virtually powerless without our unsung colleagues - residents, nurses, technicians etc. By using plurals we recognize their vital role in our success story. Where as in a multiple author paper, the author has no option but to call it ‘our work’ instead on ‘my paper’, even when he is writing the paper all by himself / herself, there were many hands helping him / her and it is our Journal policy to acknowledge the same.
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