Who said what? Diving into papers

Yesterday I was talking about authorship lists on papers and what this can mean, or rather imply, for who did what within a paper. An important extension of this is appreciating who has what responsibility for which parts of a paper and who intends what.  Obviously papers do not state exactly who was responsible for which parts of a given manuscript, but if you are familiar with the filed and the researchers then at least some parts are probably obvious or pretty clear such as the appearance of a specialist on histology or taphonomy on a paper which includes elements of this but doesn’t focus on it.

This can tell you who is responsible for things in the sense of their creation, but true responsibility and intent can be rather different. By tradition and for practical purposes the lead author has responsibility for the content of the paper and any mistakes in there or other issues. In theory he has control over the manuscript and as such gets the credit for the work and thus also takes the blame for its failings. Naturally however, the truth can be rather different.

There could have been a lot of help from a supervisor if the work is by a young researcher, and various issues can mean that actually the first author may not have had full control over the paper. I can think of a few papers where I know the first author is working in a second language or well outside their normal field and they are not sufficiently blessed in them to have possibly had much to do with the manuscript as a whole, let alone take credit or responsibility accordingly. Equally, if the lead author is likely relying on a specialist for some aspect of the paper, that person should be held responsible for the issues there. Yes the criticism could be directed to the Smith of Smith et al., but if it’s pretty obvious he didn’t put together that part of the manuscript then don’t judge him harshly and take the issue up with the person most likely concerned.

On a different note, if it is a long and complex paper with many authors then don’t be surprised if not everyone agrees with everything in the paper. As before, many people can be credited on papers for different reasons. If I put in a substantive amount of effort into a project, I’d want credit on the paper (and of course to show to my funders etc.) but I might not agree with or be happy with the final outcome. Profound disagreements can lead to people taking their name off of papers, but that isn’t always a practical issue for all concerned. Even the lead author may not agree with everything said in his paper if he writes democratically and gets outvoted by his colleagues or again he’s relying an expert and trusts his judgement on interpretation even if he disagrees.

Ultimately for me this all comes down to the inaccuracies of authorship lists and so on. Clearly there is a practicality issue and I’m not advocating that they change. As things stand these issues are not really very big, and if you have a problem or are curious a quick e-mail to the lead author will generally clear things up (Did you write this bit? Do you really think that? Does Jones agree with that statement, he said the opposite in his last paper?). Still it’s worth remembering and bearing in mind both how papers are put together and what that can mean for people’s take on even their own work and the implications of having your name on a given paper.

2 Responses to “Who said what? Diving into papers”


  1. 1 Heinrich Mallison 06/09/2011 at 9:48 am

    I like that some journals ask the authors to state who did what (PLoS ONE, for example).

    I had a really funny experience once, where the physics and maths of a paper were total chaos. I emailed the corresponding author, who happened to be the lead author (and the editor of the book), and he very kindly referred me to the co-authors responsible for that part of the paper – two physicists. Quite clearly, the division of labor was clear-cut in this case!


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