A Modest Proposal on Authorship

July 30, 2007

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.

A recent NatureJobs “Bricks & Mortar” piece suggests a nice rosy method for determining authorship/order on papers. The authors posit a discussion of potential co-authors where contributions (ideas, text writeup, figures, etc) are assigned merit ranks. Arbitrary weights are then supposed to generate a nice objective metric of contribution that might then be used to determine authorship. This is an unbelievable pile of junk that appears to have no connection whatsoever to the way authorships for Nature letters/articles are actually determined! Writedit labors under a similar misconception that mere discussion of contributions and relative merit can solve the problem as well. Don’t get me wrong. I also advocate being as open as possible about who is going to be first author on a given project right from the first discussions. But it is hard to predict where the science is going to take the project.

Ultimately it is impossible to know in advance who is going to be the part of the puzzle that kicks the project up to Nature/Science status. (or even publication status, for that matter.) And in many high-impact publishing labs, several years work from half a dozen postdocs/grad students gets squeezed into a single paper, often in a big rush at the end as the PI assembles the paper from the available projects/data. So how is credit assigned? What is most important? The knockout mouse/novel drug-toxicity model/human population/cognitive test? The phenotype/system/sub-analysis that generated the most-interesting result of the model? The series of follow-up manipulations in artificial gene expression systems/specific (ant)agonist ligands/neuropsych tests that provide insight into “mechanism”, “specificity” or the like? One gets into chicken-or-egg situations very quickly. A “discussion” amongst the “potential co-authors” then becomes self-interested argument for why each individuals’ data is the most important. This is why the PI makes the autocratic decision, in most cases. Thereby angering at least one of the contributors who feels screwed. Then, just to make things extra fun, the reviewers ask for several more experiments which may require the involvement of another co-author or two, or fundamentally change the “contribution” of an existing co-author.

A Modest Proposal

Why not let the reviewers decide importance of particular aspects of the manuscript and therefore the authorship order? Structurally it would be pretty easy since reviewers are already supposed to comment on what is most important and interesting about a given manuscript. The manuscript might include a list of authors with no indication of order, or with contributions listed. Might have to formalize the review process a bit but many journals already use a series of scaled queries on importance, quality, impact, etc so it should be a simple matter. Reviewers could then specify the reason a given manuscript should be published in a rank order. “The most important thing is that this gene has been deactivated….” or “The series of cell culture / gene expression experiments make this of “Nature” quality….” Etc. Once accepted, the final ranking of contributing elements to the paper could be identified by the Editor(s) as the factors leading to acceptance. Then the author order might be determined on the basis of contribution to this ranked list. Simple, eh?

10 Responses to “A Modest Proposal on Authorship”

  1. nosugrefneb Says:

    How can the reviewers possibly be privy to all the behind-the-scenes contributions of those involved? They aren’t aware of the experimental planning process, the analysis, discussion with PIs, guidance over technicians and students, etc. It seems like the number of technicians with first-author papers would skyrocket based solely on contributions to data collection!


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    It wouldn’t have to get down to the minutia of who is 6th and 7th author on a 10 author list. My proposal is not to have the reviewers and editor assign authorship but rather to assign the priority for what on-paper aspects of the manuscript are most important. The authors themselves would have to determine who did what but this way the peer review process would provide clear guidance on what aspects are most important.

    For example, it may be the case that the first publication of a knockout or transgenic animal (even in this day and age!) is so important that it carries the day. Alternately, the animal may have been published, or is a me-too and therefore exploration of a novel phenotype is most important. You could also envision scenarios where the follow up (say in vitro expression, rescue, recapitulation, etc) experiments really make the paper important (“demonstrates mechanism”).

    It wouldn’t solve everything, of course, but it is better than that absurd proposal in NatureJobs.


  3. nosugrefneb Says:

    Agreed, the formula thing is a little ridiculous.

    Still, while yours is certainly a good idea, I’m still with writedit on this one: Adults should, in a perfect world, be able to figure this out themselves.

    Perhaps they should hug it out.


  4. PhysioProf Says:

    “Why not let the reviewers decide importance of particular aspects of the manuscript and therefore the authorship order?”

    While I agree with you that this would be better than the cockamamie idiocy that Nature came up with, it is still much, much worse than the current system, which is that the corresponding author has the final say.


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    I think what I was trying to get at was less of a rigidly deterministic system and more of an external comment/review of author order. After all, many papers get published with the authors’ version of responses to review rather than a point by point acceptance of all criticisms. The Editor, of course, serving as ultimate arbiter, but only of what the PI or corresponding author is willing to present, he or she can always take it elsewhere.

    I don’t know how much you’ve been around painful authorship fights (?). It isn’t pretty. I thank my lucky stars that this is not a typical feature of my area of research. I am quite familiar with situations in which painful fights occur with just about every freakin’ paper.


  6. PhysioProf Says:

    I have seen them, but never participated in them. The problem with your suggestion is that it creates *more* opportunity for argument among authors, by creating another authority with some say in authorship order. This will inevitably tempt some authors to behave like a little kid whose mother won’t let him do something so he goes to ask his father.

    The benefit of the current system is that the corresponding author has effectively dictatorial power over authorship. The checks on this power are (1) the need to maintain some level of morale in the laboratory and among collaborators, (2) the reputation of the corresponding author, and (3) the threat of the “nuclear option”–an author pursuing institutional (or other external) oversight of the situation.

    While this system definitely leads to disgruntled authors, it almost never leads to the nuclear option. Decentralizing the authority to determine authorship would, in my opinion, substantially increase the frequency of disgruntled authors going nuclear.


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    It is a fair enough point although given the very high hurdle for the nuclear option I wonder whether your fears would actually be realized. Even with accusations of research fraud the more-junior person seems to always pay the steeper price.

    Upon reflection I think I may be tilting a little bit towards proposing a system to get unjustifiably whining postdocs to just shut up and realize what time it is. To realize that “work” does not always equal “contribution” and that sometimes one gets screwed. Because after all the above proposal is simply what the “good” PI should be doing anyway in guiding the author list process. But extend me a little optimism. Even the “bad” PI who is willing to shuffle authors based on liking, who needs to defend, who is on the job market, who is currently crying in the office and other such factors maybe convinced (or at least shamed) by peer review making it clear that the intended author order is not scientifically justified. It needn’t always be a nuclear confrontation with the PI.


  8. RB Says:

    I think the author list should be presented in a circle. No start, no end, no first, no last. Problem solved.


  9. nosugrefneb Says:

    Who’s on top?
    Who’s in proper reading orientation?


  10. […] get into discussions about this problem from time to time. Although I’ve perhaps touched on the issues in blog posts once or twice, I’ve never done the full critique. And now I […]


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