Placing credit where it is due

April 14, 2011

I’ve had a few interactions lately that have led to some pondering on the attribution of academic credit for papers. It all starts with the hilarious gyrations that promotions and tenure committees occasionally, maddeningly, go through.
As most of my readers are aware, in biomedical sciences we have a system in which there are four key elements to placing credit for a given academic paper.
1.) The first author. This person is generally a trainee and generally assumed to be the person who did “most” of the real work on the paper. This can be defined in many ways, from conducting the bulk of the experiments to the most important experiments to the drafting of the manuscript. Defined, that is, by the research team itself when determining who is deserving of the first authorship. Once the paper has been published, the assumption about the role of the first author is more nebulous but no less firm in attributing the academic credit.
2.) The senior author. Often the last author, often the primary mentor of the first author and often the PI of the grants identified as supporting the project.
3.) The “communicating author”. Most often the senior author, less frequently the first author and very infrequently someone else*. If the senior author, this is just a reinforcing stamp on his/her seniority, particularly if there are several relatively senior people with their own laboratories contributing. If the communicating author is the first author, this can be an indication from the research team that the project is really all under the intellectual domain of the postdoc or graduate student in question. The senior author is saying “no, really, it was all my brilliant postdoc and she should get all the credit. ps, email her for reagents or mouse lines, not me”.
4.) The grants identified as supporting the project and, by extension, the PIs of those grants.
P&T committees frequently find themselves parsing academic credit schemes not just from the biomedical perspective, but also from alternate academic traditions in which the number of other authors matters more than it does in biomedical disciplines, where the senior author is the first author, where single-authorship is important….or there is variance in other minutia. This can in itself be infuriating, after all, how hard is it to recognize that the tradition you trained in is only one of many equally arbitrary crediting schemes?

What kills me though is when they look at the senior BigCheez biomedical types who are up for promotion to Full or “University Professor of Swangage” or some such and say “Dude, there is no way you actually wrote the fifteen manuscripts you listed in the past year, we gotta divide this up somehow”, while simultaneously looking at some poor schmuck Assistant Professor or Research Professor of -ology or whatnot and saying “Hrm, hrm, hrm. You have this senior author on all of your papers so we simply cannot, CANNOT I tell you, infer that you are operating as an independent investigator and you must simply be the tool of the BigCheez”. A lovely little Catch-22.
Next, I’ve been pondering the attribution of credit from the grant-game side of the fence. Remember the post at the NIGMS blog which presented data on the number of publications per investigator, broken down by the total amount of NIH grant funding? Look at the second figure and the jump between one grant (~$200K in direct costs) and two grants (~$400K). The mean number of publications goes up by maybe two but look at the intraquartile range. The 75th percentile nearly doubles. I notice that the people claiming that productivity doesn’t scale with the number of awards are talking mostly about the mean, not the range. And the trendline is ascending, not leveling off (as does the mean). Part of this may be, however, because some PIs, particularly those with reasonably basic research approaches, just go ahead and list every grant they have in hand on each and every paper that goes out.
The reason to do this, of course, is that when the NIH award is up for competitive renewal the PI lists all the resulting publications with the goal of looking “incredibly productive”. And this works out exactly as planned, in my grant reviewing experience. The reviewer already has a Gestalt impression, in many cases, that the PI in question is “productive” because they notice the papers keep coming out. They review the Biosketch and the Progress Report listing the publications associated with the grant in question and say to themselves “wow! looks great”. A perception of fabulous productivity covers a lot of ills in the actual grant proposal itself. Let me tell you though, the vast majority of reviewers are not calculating machines who attribute fractional credit based on how many grant awards are listed in the Acknowledgements section. Nor do they** look at the content of each publication to determine exactly which figures were attributable to the grant under current review. And of course, this reality screws the PI who has only the single award for whom each and every manuscript really was supported by the grant in question in its entirety.
I arrive at the ethical question from the PI perspective. What is fair? What’s the minimum amount of time an award is active before it can be put on a paper? Or what sort of expenditure? Do you have to have paid some sort of research bill from it or is staff time enough? What about if it is only while you are revising a previously-submitted MS?
We all have to make our own calls, of course, and the point I made above about making the competing continuation look as good as possible is no joke. My standard is a loose one: I should have some plausible connection between the goals of the grant in question and the data in the manuscript. So yes, I have definitely submitted manuscripts that did not list all of my active awards. And I think that I’ve listed awards on papers only for which the connection was reasonable…but I’m sure opinions would vary on that one.
But how about start dates? This intrigues me. I have definitely seen competing continuation applications come through listing support for an article that as published 6-9 mo after the start of the award. In society level journals that take nearly this long from original submission to publication of the article. So I know dollars to doughnuts that no real research expenditures were being made on the immediately past interval of support. But the team may have been polishing up or revising the manuscript, right?
Personally, I don’t think I have any minimum standard for the dollar contribution of a given award to the manuscript in question. My effort is primarily brain effort these days so, for example, if I’m working on writing or revising or fighting reviewers/editors, then I’m working on that manuscript. So technically, if the award is active and I’m having my effort paid from it, then that support is contributing. If I come up with some brilliant ideas that generalize across several of my research programs, that is a contribution. If a member of my lab is working up an assay or technique that we can apply to multiple projects, that contributes. I see no practical way to assess how much of a contribution has been made. So it seems like the brightest line we can draw is to determine if the grant is active before or after the manuscript has been accepted for publication.
The single-award laboratory is still considerably disadvantaged by this because of the perception factor. Really, if the grant score hinges on “productivity”, we really should be able to divide the pubs by the number of awards or the amount of $$ or something. But I’m telling you, the reviewer mind can’t really do this.
The perception of “amazing productivity” of the PI / lab is just too strong.
[This post is cross-posted at Scientopia]
*a secondary “senior author”, most typically. Another PI who appears as an author, perhaps in next-to-last position. Might be PI of one of the awards listed as supporting the project or supervisor of the second author.
**except the occasional jerk trying to make a point whom the rest of the study section promptly ignores as a nutter…

6 Responses to “Placing credit where it is due”

  1. Eric Lund Says:

    The issues you discuss here aren’t limited to the biomedical world; they also arise in my corner of physics. We don’t assign any particular significance to the last author (unless it’s a two author paper), but my subfield is small enough that everybody knows who the big players are, so it’s not as much of a problem. Issues can arise when you look at a subfield with different traditions: some subfields, such as particle physics, have a tradition of arranging author lists strictly alphabetically, so that the overwhelming majority of scientists in those areas never get to publish a first-author paper (but if you are so lucky as to have a surname that begins with a couple of A’s, you might rack up a dozen or more first-author papers per year).
    I agree with your policy of acknowledging only those grants which are plausibly related to the research, but I know of other people who acknowledge any grant that’s paying any part of their salary. As in your field, reviewers usually don’t examine it in any detail–unless something has my antennae twitching, I rarely go beyond spot-checking that the acknowledgement is present, and I have no reason to think that a typical reviewer would be more thorough than that.


  2. Bob O`Bob Says:

    You begin with an explanation of procedures which you assert that “most of” your audience already knows. This is appreciated by a non-academic like myself. ScienceBlogs appears to be seeking a more mainstream audience, and would probably encourage more. But at the same time, I remain distracted by the inability to detect any explanation for the most frequently used acronym in the whole piece. (PI)


  3. DrugMonkey Says:

    That’s why I have a Glossary in the title bar, Bob O’Bob.
    PI is Principal Investigator, a named position on NIH grants. The person (or now persons because there is an option for “Multiple Principal Investigators” on the applications) responsible for conduct of the work under the grant award. Typically this is also the person who wrote most or all of the grant proposal as well.


  4. In the humanities we either put the major author first, or arbitrarily publish one name first. I recently published two papers with a senior figure – one essay he went first and the other I did. Often we put a footnote saying what the relative contributions were.


  5. David Says:

    Seems to me like fair enough. We are working almost the same in the Asian Studies department.


  6. Another biomedical researcher Says:

    Given the amount of “preliminary data” that is required to achieve funded grant applications (and that often had no easily attributable funding source), the publication soon after grant funding that attributes the grant in question seems more than reasonable.


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