Most biomedical scientists [see Discovering Biology in a Digital World for comment on field-specific practices] come across authorship conflicts; at least once or twice a career, often for each and every paper in labs which publish in high-impact journals. Most readers are familiar with this but in modern usage in many biomedical fields, the most senior scientist/PI of the laboratory/BigCheez holds down the last author position (and frequently “communicating author” designation) to indicate this high status. This is a BigDeal because in many situations this person is awarded the “real” credit for the paper and all postdocs/grad students/techs are assumed to be brainless sets of hands. Okay, I may be overstating but c’mon, the shorthand is to refer to a body of work as the result of the “SeniorAuthor” lab, instead of “the work of six different trainees”. Am I wrong? Controversy for this position can, however, arise when multiple labs are contributing data to a single paper. Usually the senior author would be the head of the first author’s laboratory. This brings us to the mythic FirstAuthor position, the source of much difficulty, bad feelings and even lawsuits. Rightfully so because in the career currency, this is the most important type of publication to list on the CV. Formally, the first author is supposed to be the person making the major contribution to the article, i.e., generated the most critical data, set tone for the direction and interpretation of the data and drafted most of the manuscript. Therefore, first authorship for postdocs and grad students is all critical in demonstrating that one is a seriously contributing scientist. Nobody criticizes a job or grant applicant for an insufficient number of second-author publications! Yet the formal description of first author is a bit passe. Particularly in high-impact journals, the data range across multiple disparate assays, models or techniques and it is hard to determine whose contribution was the most important. So authorship discussions can get…nasty. Read the rest of this entry »