Authorship lists

Some time ago I muttered something along the lines of “there are lies, damn lies and authorship lists”. It is really one of the more contentious sides of research and an endless source of strain to some people (and to everyone on occasion) as with more than one author there has to be some kind of order of authors on the paper (Jones and Smith, or Jones, Smith and Smythe), and at least one person is probably going to be less than 100% happy, and it is almost certainly not going to really represent quite who did what on the manuscript.

Moreover, who even gets on the paper and for what reason can vary from field to field (lab techs seems to regularly be included as authors on molecular papers, whereas fossil preparators are rarely included on palaeo ones) and certainly within fields too, and there are some arcane rules hidden away in those lists. Indeed I’m sure there are others that I’m unaware of even within biology/ palaeontology and certainly beyond.

Things also vary according to the structure of a paper too. If you already have half a dozen or more authors on a small project and someone comes in with an important point or can add an extra analysis or whatever, then it’s unlikely to upset the applecart to add them in as an author, and it probably represents a reasonable approximation of the contributions with so many involved. If however you’re refining a 50+ page monster you constructed yourself then the same amount of help will likely only get you into the acknowledgements: it’s not really fair to split the credit as Smith & Jones as opposed to Smith alone for that (proportionally) little. Some people probably will of course, when others might not go that far in the first example, but such is life.

It’s also the reason why younger researchers (I think) get more concerned about this, when you only have a handful of papers to your name, missing out on one, or dropping down the authorship list a few places can make a big difference to your overall record, whereas seasoned researchers will have this effect balanced out over a number of papers and are generally more generous with credit (and can afford to be). Certainly it can be frustrating when some people seem to endlessly get added to work by their colleagues or supervisors or there are 20 authors on a 3 page paper, it looks like someone(s) isn’t pulling their weight and are getting undue credit. To be honest I think this is a pretty open, if dirty, secret but it survives because really there’s no demand by journals for authors to justify exactly what they did, and in any case people can (and I suspect at least some would) simply lie.

Obviously the order generally reflects the level of work committed to a project. The first author did the most, the last author the least, but it’s rarely that simple. In palaeo at least and certainly most fields of biology I know, it’s common for the last author in a string to have been in some kind of supervisory role. Senior researchers at the head of labs are often in this position though they might have made a considerable contribution to the paper. In know that in China however, this is generally not the case and authorship lists there tend to more reflect levels of contribution, though confusingly this can also integrate levels of seniority (so Professor X might be listed above researcher Y even though the latter did a bit more).

Certainly different people can be on papers for very different reasons and it’s certainly not uncommon for people to be in papers for which they have written not a word. That of course doesn’t mean they didn’t contribute – they could have collected important data, run analyses, found or prepared the original material, been involved in discussions or generated the ideas the work is founded on, generated funding to support the work or a host of other technical and academic contributions without necessarily being involved in the actual writing. In some cases the final paper contains none of the persons’ contributions because it was cut out, but they remain on their in reference to their efforts and time (and quite probably money) devoted to the project.

All of this adds up to a confusing picture and while some papers can be read and each author’s contributions laid bare, others are rather more complex. If nothing else, there is a huge difference between a genuine collaboration between ‘Smith and Jones’ where each did 50% of the work (and you can even see joint first authored papers these days) and a ‘Smith and Jones’ where the latter was the former’s supervisor who helped the project into being, and deserves his credit, but did perhaps 10% or less of the paper. Hence the inevitable issues when you get to 5 or even 10 authors and the conflicts that can arise and of course, the confusion that can arise when reading a paper.


7 Responses to “Authorship lists”

  1. 1 David 05/09/2011 at 11:07 am

    The convention in economics is alphabetical order, which I don’t stick to myself though. Research assistants etc. usually aren’t given authorship. There is research that shows that economists with names higher up the alphabet suffer in their career because of this:

  2. 2 Heinrich Mallison 05/09/2011 at 1:02 pm

    Alphabetically? That’s really absurd, unless you have a magnum opus by dozens of people. Even then, the main driving force(s) behind the paper should go first, e.g.:

  3. 3 Jay 05/09/2011 at 2:04 pm

    Interesting article Dave. Im sure there are implications for future publishing researchers here.

    Certainly there are several examples where any one method of determining authorship order may not be suitable to some situations. I don’t have publishing experience myself, but one idea I’ve had in mind for this situation follows: say the membership of the authorship is known, and ignoring the fact that any coauthor in a supervisory role recieves special perks in authorship position.
    1. the principal researcher author has done the greatest amount of work in forming the paper and research, and also should be in a good position to judge who has done the 2nd largest amount of work, the 3rd largest, etc, etc, in descending order, toward getting the research done. Lets say, for this example the authorships comprises five people. Lets also assume there isn’t a ridiculously large number of coauthors where determining this will be impossible.
    2. In a 5-person authorship, the principal researcher occupies the first position in authorship.
    3. The author who has done the 2nd most amount of work is then offered a choice of the remaining positions (2 to 5). Lets say in this example that person prefers the last slot (5th author) for whatever reason.
    3. The author who has done the 3rd most amount of work is then offered a choice of the remaining positions (2 to 4 in the above example).
    4. The process continues, till all the slots are filled.
    5. Obviously, the people contributing the most to the work benefit by getting the desired positions in authorship, and the people doing the least amount of work are likewise rewarded with the least-desired positions.

    But as mentioned already, it’s just an idea and one that probably will not be applicable to all situations, types of research, labs groups, and – especially – personalities.

  4. 4 Random 05/09/2011 at 2:36 pm

    In mathematics, the convention is to credit alphabetically as well. Regardless of the number of authors on the paper, this guarantees that nothing is misrepresented – because no one in the field is expecting the order of authorship to have any relevance to the level of author commitment to the project.

    However, I do feel it necessary to specify that in the field of molecular biology (and certainly in most biomedical sciences), the lab techs are far more than simply assistants who take instructions. Many of them have master’s degrees; many design and conduct their own experiments with full independence. Naturally, this is not true of every technician, but, in general, if a tech’s name is on a paper, it is fairly safe to say that the intellectual contribution is solid. With fossil preparation, this isn’t always the case (though again, I’m not saying it never is – I just want techs to get their due).

    • 5 David Hone 05/09/2011 at 3:59 pm

      Interesting on the maths (and economics) front. As for the techs, I’m well aware that things can vary enormously but my rather limited observations and info I’d got of lab techs did put them more in the former category. Thanks for the correction.

  5. 6 Kilian Hekhuis 05/09/2011 at 4:17 pm

    I’ve been listed once as the author of a paper, because I created some software (that I created in assignment from the paper’s main author) used to produce some of the graphs used, and besides asking one or two smart questions (I was a student back then, the author a research assistent) I had little to do with the contents. It’s strange Googling for your name and finding it in dozens of references to the paper from other works…

  6. 7 Tim 13/09/2011 at 5:32 pm

    It is especially difficult to bridge multiple disciplines (e.g., paleo and chemistry, or paleo and biology) because paleo generally follows the geo order of importance (first did most, second did second most, and so on). This becomes challenging when you have the first author wrote the paper, but the last author is the “important” one or the corresponding author. I find it especially interesting working with chemists because their students are never corresponding authors so they never have the experience of uploading papers before they become professors themselves. I like that in paleo the first author is generally corresponding allowing students the opportunity to 1) control the entire upload and review process and 2) interact with editors directly. This really helps with professional development that I think other disciplines do not have.

    Also, a lot of lab techs end up not receiving any credit for their work except in the acknowledgements even if the author of the paper hasn’t been on the bench in a decade.

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