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.
Invisible Me:

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.

What I Said:

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.
Take shortcuts.
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.

14 Responses to “Thoughts on the Authorship wars, Invisibility and Lazy Shorthands”

  1. maybe its because I’m a lowly grad student, but I always categorize papers by first author. It used to cause some confusion as I would always initially think I hadn’t read a paper, when the PI would reference it by the last author. I have now started to use both the first and last author. Mind you, I also hate to use reviews as reference and prefer to track down the original references for facts….


  2. becca Says:

    “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. “
    When I first started saving pdfs to my computers, I’d record the first author, or sometimes the first few, but never the last. I *never* thought in terms of the BigCheese, but rather the people who did the bench work. However, when I tried to communicate with my PIs about articles, and they’d never know what the heck I was talking about. They actively “corrected” me when I referred to something by the first author (or even first *and* last author) to just the last author.
    Now I save my pdfs “first author… last author” (literally “…” unless I actually personally know or care about a middle author) and my PIs know what I’m talking about. I’m secretly slightly disappointed in them, but they know what I’m talking about.
    Moral: we don’t take shortcuts because they are shortest, but because they follow the Traditional Routes.


  3. DrugMonkey Says:

    Interesting. I save pdfs by first author’s last name and pub year.
    I am uncertain if this just means that I selected the crappiest possible way to organize or if my mind thinks that way and I selected the best organizational strategy for myself to work with.


  4. Why bother saving PDFs of papers? It’s more efficient to just download it every time you need to look at it.


  5. CPP, are you serious? What if you don’t have internet access? (Perhaps you always do).
    I save manuscript PDFs as:
    Year. FirstAuthor_LastAuthor. Keywords. Journal.
    A lot of times I know I’m looking for keyword 2008, or Last Author PNAS… this way I just search my documents based on what I want, and there it is.


  6. Re: the authorship issue, I have been really surprised about how my thinking of authors has changed since starting my postdoc. In my grad lab, we didn’t collaborate much within the group, and so all of my papers were MY papers. As such, I kind of assumed that first authors were supreme superstars, and no one else had much claim to the work.
    Now that I am in a group that is as prolific as it is *because* of collaboration, I have come to realize that that second, third, etc. authors can have dramatic and substantial contributions to papers. As such, I almost look at papers now as lab efforts instead of individual efforts. Even my own 1st author papers. And it is most convenient to associate these efforts with the name of the PI. I would hope that anyone who has ever done benchwork is aware who the sweat-blood-and-tears credit should be given to.
    We recently published a high-profile manuscript on which I am 4th author. I am extremely proud of this work and the role I played in the discovery. Whenever the time comes for me to give a job talk, I would be loathe not to include this work in my talk. It is *this* that I find most interesting- that with true collaboration, our sense of authorship lines get blurred, and science that is part of one person can also be part of someone else. Kind of beautiful, I think.


  7. qaz Says:

    In my field, grad students and postdocs often change topics and fields, whereas PIs tend to create a cohesive story through many projects. This means that referring to a population of papers by PI is more likely to retrieve the appropriate set of similar papers than by first author.
    I still save papers by first author and year, but that’s just for simplicity in having a regular system. I don’t actually look for things that way. I use search processes. And, mentally, I organize them in my head by lab/PI.
    On the other hand, authorship is (as we all know) only weakly correlated with the actual authorship contributions, so sometimes it is correct to refer to a paper by a different author if the work is somehow really part of that author’s collection of work.
    NB. Clearly Jerkwad senior professor that FSP is talking about got it wrong. Clearly Jerkwad senior professor’s problem is much deeper than authorship given his reaction after FSP explained the situation to him.


  8. Sally Says:

    Refer to papers by their title and/or main point. Anything else is vanity, or catering to it. It’s the data and discoveries that are important. Authors are just the meatbags that get the stuff into the literature.
    I mean, seriously…
    Do you recognize Strauss et al Bridge? I thought not.
    How about the statue of Köchlin, Bartholdi, et al?
    Or even in physiology… Bayliss and Starling? I’m sure every reader here knows their seminal discovery. Or Holley, Khorana, Nirenberg? I’m sure everyone here knows their relatively recent work too.
    My point: Forget the authorship squabbles. No one’s gonna remember you anyway. Unless they do, in which case you can afford to be gracious.


  9. Pascale Says:

    I save my PDFs by Journal abbreviation, year, and lower-case letter:
    I can usually remember where and when I read something (approximately), but often authors escape me. If I can remember an author, I can always PubMed it again.
    That, and I have them all linked to my EndNote Library…
    Having had someone ask me, early in my career, if I was familiar with “Mike Mauer’s paper” and having to explain that I was the first author one it… I just don’t pay too much attention to that stuff anymore.


  10. grumpy Says:

    i used to think the whole fighting-for-first-authorship thing was petty and a waste of time…until i realized that i almost never remember who the middle authors are on any ms.
    now i still collaborate and take pride in my 2nd/3rd author papers, but i realize nobody is paying attention to my contribution so it’s more for the thrill of accomplishing goals in the lab and seeing my labmates succeed.


  11. qaz Says:

    Umm… Sally #8, you don’t seriously mean to argue that architecture and art are not remembered by authorship, do you? Everyone remembers art and architecture by author. In fact, they remember them generally by senior author. (I guarantee all those I.M.Pei or Gaudi buildings were built by large teams. Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Rembrandt all ran large art shops.) The reason that we generally know them by senior author is that the overall style was dependent on the senior author. Thus, we can identify a Frank Gehry building because of the distinctive style that his buildings have.
    As proof that art is remembered by senior author not by first-author, you are right, I had no idea what the “statue of Köchlin, Bartholdi, et al” was. I had to look it up on Wikipedia. But I do know who the senior engineer was on the Statue of Liberty – in part because he liked to build with iron and copper and has a tower in Paris named after him.


  12. Craig M Says:

    It’s something of a moot point for me; because I’m completely crap with names, I usually end up referring to things as “that paper where they did the social-fos-MDMA thingie”, unless the PI has a very memorable name (hooray for Deroche-Gamonet…).
    And I’m with CPP on the downloading; if I need to refer to it regularly, then it gets printed and stuck in the filing cabinet next to my desk. If it’s not something I need to refer to constantly, then it just gets downloaded when necessary (wireless internet…).
    Absolutely everything gets put in Endnote, though, with detailed enough notes that I can find it with a keyword search even when I haven’t the faintest what the authors’ names were.


  13. DrugMonkey Says:

    The reason that we generally know them by senior author is that the overall style was dependent on the senior author. Thus, we can identify a Frank Gehry building because of the distinctive style that his buildings have.
    yeah. Um….you wanna think about that comment a little bit more? Kinda germane to my point, isn’t it?


  14. Hey CE, do you not use Papers or EndNote? I just save the papers by their PubMed ID and they easily load in with their abstracts and references.


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