Thoughts on the Authorship wars, Invisibility and Lazy Shorthands
May 3, 2010
The authorship position on a scientific manuscript is occasionally a matter of acrimonious debate within laboratories. My readership is diverse and whenever we discuss the issue it is made clear that there are a lot of variant field-specific practices. All well and good. My continued point is that the authorship position is at root a communication. No one tradition is “right” or “wrong” or, as some actually contend, “ethical/unethical” as a matter of ultimate truth. What is important is that the expected audience knows how to read the author line and conclude the desired thing* about relative contributions to the work.
I was kicked over the edge on this by reading a comment on a blog I hadn’t seen before called Infactorium. The author AnyEdge observes in this post:
I’m fourth author on this, although realistically I should be second, but the two authors at 2nd and 3rd did some good work, and deserve recognition and will be thrilled and this will likely be the only publication of their careers because they don’t have a job that expects (or really even rewards) publication. So I feel magnanimous about that, because it’ll be a paper for me and that’s good.
Sounds good in principle, right?
Now we come to a two parter from Female Science Professor on the way authorship and scientific contributions can become muddled in the minds of outsiders.
a Great Man of Science came to my department…I expected him to be familiar with only one part of my research; i.e., research on topic X, as it was in the context of my work on X that we most recently met… was amazed to hear him say: “My good friend, Other Great Man of Science, is doing some really interesting work on X right now. In fact, he is transforming the way we think about X, and has some recent results that are very exciting.”..I was stunned when he said this..because he was talking about my research group’s work on X.
I said “Yes, of course I know about that research because a large part of it has been my work.” Then I launched into a calm but very detailed description of the project, highlighting the work of my student, placing Other Great Man’s contributions in context, and describing the evolution of the project. …He was definitely somewhat embarrassed, although I don’t think the feeling went too deep. He mumbled something about not being good with names and faces, then changed the subject to his favorite topic: himself and other famous people he knows.
Now obviously, this guy was an extreme jerk. Not unique (see the comments at FSP’s place) but still. Most people have a bit more of a clue and would have the good grace to apologize sincerely and profusely for the oversight.
Still (as is also revealed in the comments at FSP’s blog) there is a way in which the extremely insulting behavior of a BSD is just the natural end result of what we all do to some extent.
If any scientist tries to tell me they have never, ever described a body of work as being from “The Smith Lab” or similar, without crediting the five different first-authors, I will laugh in their face.
[ I should point out that I've certainly been in a situation similar to FSP's story before. In my case some blowhard landed on the middle author BigCheese PI who was clearly providing a very narrow area of technical expertise (via *her* trainee). The blowhard seemed unable to credit the contributions of either myself or the more-senior scientist with whom I was actually working. It was a very surreal conversation to be involved in, as I think you can see from FSP's entry on the topic of invisibility. ]
If a trainee manages to put together a multi-publication story from one lab, then perhaps we will remember her, as in “The work Yun Gun did while she was in the Smith Lab”. This, btw, is where I link back to the first quote. When I am talking to a postdoc who is in the middle of an authorship fight (in some other lab, obviously) I try to get them to look at the long view. The goal is to see how this will look in retrospect, 5, 8 or 10 years down the road.
Will you be having multiple papers on the same sub-area of the lab? With you being the first on at least one, high-ish on a majority? No other person other than the PI being listed on all of them? And perhaps at some point you can persuade the PI to let you be corresponding author and in senior or penultimate senior position?
It is a gamble at the front end, of course, because you cannot predict how the future will turn out with absolute accuracy. Sometimes, however, you really do have good confidence on how things will go. Perhaps you (the trainee) has the first paper on the topic, with first author credit. And the story is looking to have some legs with near-manuscripts on the horizon. But it is worth thinking, as you are fighting about symbols and authorship positions for publications 3-5 in that sub-area, about how it will look in the end analysis.
And if the end analysis is going to be “Yun Gun’s work in Smith’s lab” then you don’t have to worry yourself being an ass about 3rd with co-first symbol situation. Be magnanimous.
On the other side of things, perhaps we can all stand to work a little harder to get the crediting straight. At least for our most frequently cited papers or bodies of work? It isn’t that hard. I mean I have examples of single papers that are so critical to me that I cite the trainee first-author by default even though it was a bit of a BSD lab. Other cases in which the trainee worked on a single subarea but then carried it along into subsequent training stops and into early faculty work…I wouldn’t even remotely dream of associating that early work with the BSD lab in which said trainee was working.
I suspect it is just because I know the players and the work so well…I am sure that I have other examples in which I default to “the Smith Lab” when I really should not do so. So, what the heck, I’ll try to be a little better about that.
*Yes, I realize this is not perfect communication at all times. And while the efforts for more detailed author-contribution statements are not a panacea, I don’t have any problem with including them.