Recent Posts on Authorship Position

December 11, 2007

Cognitive Daily tips us to Brain in a Vat on the Wren et al. survey of “importance” of authorship position, a dissection of authorships in a tenure case from Strange Fruit and Neurotopia v2.0. A comment to Cog Daily tips us to a relevant phd comic. Although I think most of the readers here are MWE&G fans, writedit had this one on surprise authorship awhile ago. For those that didn’t catch it, Digital Bio on different field practices in authorship from a bit ago as well.

18 Responses to “Recent Posts on Authorship Position”

  1. physioprof Says:

    Here is an interesting comment from Brain in a Vat: “One way of assisting admissions and promotions committees with the task of ranking candidates is the inclusion of author contribution statements that describe who did what for the paper.”

    This kind of thing has really become quite the fetish recently. I find it annoying and pointless, and a shift in information processing effort from authors of a paper to readers. I don’t have the time to study these stupid descriptions: “Author contributions. GCF, JLV, and IM conceived and designed the experiments. GCF performed the experiments and analyzed the data. GCF, BS, and JLV contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools. GCF, BS, and IM wrote the paper.” It is an effort just to keep track of which initials correspond to which author in the author list.

    The beauty of using author position in the author list as the sole indicator of credit is that the reader doesn’t have to do anything. The authors themselves have apportioned credit, so I don’t have to do so. And just think of the wasted effort of hundreds–or maybe even thousands–of readers studying these stupid “contributions” sections, as opposed to just having the authors themselves decide the apportionment of credit once and for all.

    I don’t give a shit who “conceived”, who “wrote”, who “analyzed”, and who “performed”. I just want to know who the authors themselves–with the greatest influence of course coming from the senior author–consider to have played the most important supervisory and implementational roles.


  2. DM Says:

    a cruel one you


  3. physioprof Says:

    I am a big believer in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Before I am willing to spend time and effort “fixing” something, I need to be convinced of two things: (1) That there is something substantially wrong about how it is currently. (2) That there is some reason to think that there is a reasonable opportunity to improve it.

    Until someone convinces me that there is some serious distortion in the apportionment of authorship credit in the biomedical sciences as things are currently done, I have no incentive whatsoever to waste my time concerning myself with novel methods for apportioning credit. Is there, in fact, any reason to think that there is some class of scientist who is being systematically robbed of credit in the current system?

    If not, then all this “contribution” crap does nothing but impose unnecessary adminstrative burdens on scientists who could better spend their time doing science. C’mon, someone convince me that there is any reason under the sun that I need to know that the third author of a seven-author paper contributed to “conception” and “analysis”, but not to “writing” or “performance”.


  4. I think authorship position would be a fine criteria. IF all fields viewed the order the same way.

    My point, way back when, was that they do not. Surprisingly, biology is not (!) the only field of research and occasionally some of us collaborate with those outside of our home domain. That’s when we get to learn that our way is not the only way and that life can interesting at the interface.


  5. Biogeek Says:

    PP (who questions the relevance of the contribution list at all) – I think one reason for these, is to try to cut down on “honorary authorship” situations. If everyone is on the record saying what they did, perhaps they can be a bit more honest with themselves (or within the author pool at least) as to whether they deserve to be an author at all.

    If all you have is a listing of people, it is pretty painless to insert an honorary author.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    “I think one reason for these, is to try to cut down on “honorary authorship” situations.”

    I just don’t see the problem with so called honorary authorships as I understand it. I mean sure, one kind of sneers at out-and-out gifts to buddies. But going by the typical discussions, like that one over on MWE&G a bit back, we’re talking that slippery area of “is it enough of a contribution”. And there, I don’t give a hoot if the middle authors number 1, 3 or 15, frankly.

    Where I disagree with PP is that one, as reader or job searcher, is not obliged to read the extensive acknowledgment list if one doesn’t want to do so. So where’s the burden? Yet at least there is some record of just what the contribution was. It may mean a very big deal to the jr. scientist.

    On the author side, c’mon, is this really such a huge hurdle to outline contributions? Write up one once and then it is easily modified for each paper.


  7. neurolover Says:

    I don’t like them “author contributions” ’cause they’re not really saying anything. Journals seem to be encouraging them as some kind of CYA boilerplate that allows them to get out of the debate about authorship order.

    I would like them if they were meaningful. For example: AA collected all the data in a lab rig which BB visited only occasionally (perhaps once a month). CC wrote the paper with only cursory input from AA because AA doesn’t really understand how to write a paper. DD did all of the programming and analysis. BB wrote all the grants that funded this research and read the paper once before it was submitted. BB doesn’t really understand the data collection technique, but thinks that AA does.

    The current versions tries to avoid the hard questions. Basically there are four jobs: conceiving the experiment, collecting the data, analyzing the data and writing the paper. The PI is involved with 1 & 4, the post-doc/graduate student with 2 & 3. The random guy you talked to once at a meeting, but you want to include on the paper can be included under #1, pretty much all the time.

    I would like to see authors signing off on responsibility — basically agreeing that they have vetted the paper and data, so that they can’t say that the fraud was the post-doc’s fault when they’ve created an environment that encourages fraud. I think the big labs do this when you only get attention when you get the “hot” result.


  8. Biogeek Says:

    “honorary authorship” – how about, Scientist X has generated a key reagent for the work, the reagent is already published, but nonetheless for this paper Scientist X provides it with the understanding that an author listing is the price. Often Scientist X has no other input to the work.

    It happens a lot, especially in the literature I read.

    If Scientist X had to detail what their contribution was, specifically, that might make a difference in such cases.

    As (another!) aside to address one of neurolover’s points, I don’t believe journals want to get into authorship order disputes, At All.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    biogeek, a lot of this was hashed out at MWE&G and we had a follow here.

    I just don’t see what the costs are, nor who is paying those costs, for this sort of arrangement. Those of you who are bothered by this type of authorship-for-reagent deal never seem to explain why this is wrong. Other than to refer to “authorship guidelines” at journals or institutes. Since those are clearly at odds with a whole LOT of actual practice, it bears examining why these guidelines are in place, what they are supposed to be doing and whether they need to be revised to match current reality.


  10. Biogeek Says:

    Well OK – my concern is, that if Scientist X engages in this practice, they are inflating their publication list, with papers that they did not really have meaningful (OK, the exact interpretation of this word is at issue) input. In some cases, this means they are listed as authors on papers, with whose basic conclusions they might actually disagree. This seems at odds with the principle, that being an author on a paper means that you have read it and agree with the conclusions.

    The cost in this case is, to the perception of what an author list means (which I recognize is under debate here). Also, there is a cost to the perception of what someone’s publication list means. And if practice is not uniform, then disparities occur.

    Second, I believe (and I confess to a degree of projection here) that authors that had been coerced into adding names to their paper, are not happy because making the author list longer tends to dilute the perceived contributions of each person.

    The cost in this case, is to the perceived contribution of the other authors.

    Finally, they may be unhappy because the written policies of many journals state that if a reagent is published, it should be freely available (at some level).

    The cost in this case, is to the integrity of the publishers’ guidelines, which as you indicate are not always followed in reality. However, the published = freely available principle, could be viewed as one of the tenets of the peer review/peer replication system.


  11. CC Says:

    If everyone is on the record saying what they did, perhaps they can be a bit more honest with themselves (or within the author pool at least) as to whether they deserve to be an author at all.

    I suspect that this is one of those cases where people’s shame is inversely proportional to the degree to which they should be ashamed. And that it just increases the amount of semi-fraud on which the honest people have to sign off.


  12. drugmonkey Says:

    “this means they are listed as authors on papers, with whose basic conclusions they might actually disagree. “

    hurts nobody but the reagent-provider so it is her / his choice. if necessary they could downshift to Acknowledgement or ask to be dropped entirely.

    “my concern is… they are inflating their publication list…making the author list longer tends to dilute the perceived contributions … of the other authors”

    Yeah. Trying not to be insulting here but there is a certain career immaturity at the heart of this one in my view. A sort of “…but….but…it isn’t fair, waaah!”

    The immaturity comes from the erroneous belief that hours-directly-worked on a “project” should be directly equal to authorship order. That somehow this is going to come across in a meaningful way to someone reviewing the CV. “Oh ho! Dr. Smith has five 4th authorships and Dr. Jones has five 6th authorships so clearly Dr. Smith is superior”. “Wow, Dr. Zhang has an average of 5 authors per paper whereas Dr. Lin has an average of 8 authors per paper so clearly we’re going to offer the job to Dr. Zhang”. It just doesn’t work this way.

    Like it or not actual first author and last author mean the world. Co-contribution symbol or not. Nobody really cares what middle author position or number of authors in most modern bioscience practice. (maaaaybe you could make an argument for 2nd author) I just think the “perception” thing may be more in minds of the authors themselves than in the minds of anyone doing any “perceiving” based on author list.

    Honestly, when you are “coerced” into adding an author, aren’t you pissed that they are getting an authorship “for nothing” way more than you are worried about “dilution” of your “credit” on it?


  13. Biogeek Says:

    DM, you are changing the context here (or maybe it is just that I didn’t see it properly to start with). Yes, from a science career advancement point of view, first and last author are the most important, and if you are 1 or N, it doesn’t matter if N is 7 vs 8, or 12 vs. 13.

    My point was a bit more subtle – to me, fairness and ethical conduct are important, and perceptions ARE reality. From that perspective, people getting authorship for nothing is a concern. And putting high minded concepts of fairness aside, one possible motivations for co-authors to oppose “honorary authorship”, is dilution of credit.

    I agree this is a minor consideration overall, and in the scramble to publish these issues are sometimes glossed over. Personally I consider that unfortunate, but that’s just my own point of view.


  14. neurolover Says:

    I concur with CC “. . . it just increases the amount of semi-fraud on which the honest people have to sign off.”

    The reagent question is case in point. If it’s actually traditional to require co-authorship for sharing reagents in some field, then, the authorship should be listed that way: XX provided YY for use in the experiments. If the actual contribution is noted, then, well, those of us who care can look.

    But, my suspicion is that’s not what happens: the manuscript won’t say XX provided YY and then never talked to us again. It’ll say something more general, and the “honest” authors of the manuscript will end up signing off on an inaccurate contribution.

    In general I do agree that it’s naive to whine about “fairness”. But, I do think that it’s reasonable to complain about incentives that damage the system as a whole. If one is *supposed* to share reagents (as a condition, of say, the original publications — a lot of journals seem to require that and funding — the taxpayers paid for their development) and sharing reagents increases the value of the scientific enterprise to society (more, faster discoveries, better falsification), we need to incentivize the system to encourage the sharing of reagents. So, then, the question becomes, does co-authorship encourage or discourage sharing? One could make arguments for both cases, but I think that’s the logic to apply. But, if we decide it does encourage sharing, we should just make it official, not reward those who don’t mind signing off on their funding agencies requirement to share without demanding anything, and then refusing to do so at the expense of those who take their commitments seriously. If we take that route, we incentivize dishonesty, which can’t be good for the system.

    I think a lot of what establishment people sea as junior people whining about fairness can be re-worded into providing the proper incentives for the system as a whole.


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    “It’ll say something more general, and the “honest” authors of the manuscript will end up signing off on an inaccurate contribution.”

    not sure of the scenario here. who’s honest and who’s the “inaccurate” contributor? Suppose a supply of breeding pairs of mice. Assuming the right mice were sent, that’s the extent of the “honesty”. Are you suggesting the sender should oversee the subsequent genotyping and design with respect to wt controls etc to keep the receiving lab honest with respect to the supplied mice contribution? please.

    “I do think that it’s reasonable to complain about incentives that damage the system as a whole. “

    Yeah, I think you could apply this to much of what I discuss around here. This just happens to be one that I think is a bit misdirected, that’s all.

    “I think a lot of what establishment people see as junior people whining about fairness can be re-worded into providing the proper incentives for the system as a whole.”

    oh man. did I just get accused of being “establishment”?


  16. bikemonkey Says:

    FWIW, in an amazing coincidence I just had a guy stop by with holiday thanks for providing essential materials. I got acknowledged in the paper which was just exactly right. In this case it was essentially “Sure, I’m not using the left toenails after I sac the animals, you can have ’em”.

    It never occurred to me that I should have authorship for this. Just sayin’


  17. CC Says:

    who’s honest and who’s the “inaccurate” contributor?

    To the degree that people who demand authorship accept an honest statement of their contribution, everyone is honest. On the other hand, if they balk at “Bred mice, allowed their ex-postdoc to transfer them to us” or “Is department head”, and demand a more impressive wording, they’re imposing dishonesty on others.

    Of course, in reality neither of those happens — the same pressures that put the department head on a paper he’s never read about work he’s never heard of also result in the contribution statement about how he designed the experiment, analyzed the data and wrote the paper.


  18. neurolover Says:

    what CC said.

    But, the DH only “conceived the experiment”, right? (even though all he did was let the mouse that were bred by his post-doc (or the mouse facility), with funding on the program project grant that the DH was the PI on, and which his research assistant professor wrote, leave the lab to go to the post-docs lab).

    mind you we have a saintly DH, who would never do such a thing, but one of the things that troubles me most is when the saints get screwed over for the sinners because it incentivizes the bad behavior, rather than the good.


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