Authorship Order Rules: The Departed are Demoted

September 19, 2011

This comes up not infrequently in laboratories. Suppose one person, a trainee or postdoc, leaves the lab with his or her manuscript not completed*. Sure, this dearly departed individual may have started the project and/or done the bulk of the work on it.

But still, it isn’t a manuscript.

And it therefore isn’t going to be a paper, ever, until someone else steps up and does the work. Finishes the draft at the very least. Polishes off the figures. Submits the damn thing. Fields the original criticisms. Marshals the response to review. Creates the revision.

If one other remaining/subsequent person in the laboratory does all this, the dearly departed loses the first author slot. Arguments about the scientific importance of the original idea or the key data pale at this point.

Because if it isn’t published it didn’t happen.

There is an important practical concern for mentors and you will want to think very closely about this. It opens the door for any subsequent trainee to leave unfinished (as in unsubmitted) projects behind and then later insist that they have the right to be first author when someone else finishes it up. The motivational impact on your trainees’ behavior is somewhere damn close to disastrous.

__
*Yes, there will be some wiggle here about “Oh, I submitted a complete draft to the PI and all it needed was a little editing” when it wasn’t even close to being submittable.

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No Responses Yet to “Authorship Order Rules: The Departed are Demoted”

  1. Pat Says:

    I totally agree !

    Like

  2. Sxydocma1 Says:

    Word. This is how I got my PNAS paper.

    Like


  3. If one other remaining/subsequent person in the laboratory does all this, the dearly departed loses the first author slot.

    100% correct. Coffee’s for closers.

    Like

  4. Confounding Says:

    Having once been “the departed” – though admittedly the paper was pretty damned close to finished, I even agree.

    Tangentally, those who have retired and are now utterly unreachable? Off the paper, instead of taking a year to try and find them to get their okay on it.

    *mutters*

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  5. Pinko Punko Says:

    What if the PI sits on an actually reasonable draft for two years?

    This isn’t even a fake “slippery slope” argument, it is how asshole PIs grind down lab members and can use their work product to play favorites with the next new toy on the block.

    The argument about essentiality doesn’t really hold, because you can have a paper that would not be published at all even with the existing contributors remaining in the lab, but one small piece could be essential for getting the paper out. So does that mean the tech that does the repeats on the Northern blots gets the first authorship and the grad student that had to leave for a post-doc, who did 99% of the work but review extended the process too long, does that person get hosed?

    I love these rules you guys have. Why not write an incredibly trolly book called “The Rules” and you can make millions!!

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  6. “Essentiality” is not the argument, as far as I am concerned. The argument as far as I am concerned is based on taking the lead on generating a submittable manuscript and taking the lead on responding to reviews and generating the resubmission (including, as necessary, performing and/or orchestrating the performance of additional experiments). This is the general standard for first-authorship that I apply in my lab, and it fairly encompasses the situation where someone leaves the lab without submitting their work, but fails to fulfill the usual expectation that even after moving on, one continues to fulfill authorship responsibilities.

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  7. Lab Rockstar Says:

    I think that sounds quite fair. Whoever wrote it gets first author, yo.
    That’s not how we do things in my advisor’s lab though. But to his credit, my advisor does all the revisions for ex-students himself as the last author.

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  8. Pinko Punko Says:

    DM made the argument from essentiality.

    I would make the argument from attempting to be fair, but most likely I would create an “equal contribution” situation that CPP considers to be a lie. I would consider it equitable depending on the circumstances.

    The one thing that seems clear is that DM and CPP have probably never worked for sociopaths or even partial ones. I know with sociopaths rules don’t matter, but sometimes rules like these can give them nice cover.

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  9. The one thing that seems clear is that DM and CPP have probably never worked for sociopaths or even partial ones.

    I can’t speak for DM, but you are correct that I have never worked for even a near-sociopath.

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  10. drugmonkey Says:

    I said nothing to give you cover for your ridiculous reductio ad absurdork argument Pinko Punko. I described contributions that go far beyond a single key Western blot subfigure panel or whatnot.

    The one thing that seems clear is that DM and CPP have probably never worked for sociopaths or even partial ones.

    Whether I have or not is entirely beside the point.

    Like

  11. drugmonkey Says:

    But to his credit, my advisor does all the revisions for ex-students himself as the last author.

    That is certainly better than getting some sucker to do it for the promise of equal-contribution tertiary-listed status.

    Like

  12. Pinko Punko Says:

    “This comes up not infrequently in laboratories. Suppose one person, a trainee or postdoc, leaves the lab with his or her manuscript not completed*. Sure, this dearly departed individual may have started the project and/or done the bulk of the work on it.

    But still, it isn’t a manuscript.

    And it therefore isn’t going to be a paper, ever, until someone else steps up and does the work. Finishes the draft at the very least. Polishes off the figures. Submits the damn thing. Fields the original criticisms. Marshals the response to review. Creates the revision.

    If one other remaining/subsequent person in the laboratory does all this, the dearly departed loses the first author slot. Arguments about the scientific importance of the original idea or the key data pale at this point.”

    That is an argument of essentiality of the last step trumping all possible other steps because the paper would not exist without the last step. But there are other steps equally important steps without which a paper wouldn’t exist, so this isn’t an reductio ad absurdork, don’t be PhysioProftuse.

    The degree of sociopathology is besides some points you are making. The point I was making was that the argument/rules you propose do exist in some labs as a warped choke collar for the bench serfs, so some part of your audience may grow tired or sad about the “those are the breaks sack up this is how it is you lose” effluvium that emanates intermittently from this fine establishment.

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  13. Martini Says:

    I got screwed on this by my graduate PI twice. I had to do a lot of carrying to finish two manuscripts, and both times, I got second author, only once co-first even though I finished, polished off the papers and submitted them. This effectivley added 2 years to grad school for me.

    I learned a very valuable lesson, do not ever agree to finish a departed person’s paper without having an authorship agreement in place before doing the bulk of the work.

    I see this happen frequently to others. Espeically, if the departed is looking for a new job and needs an extra first author paper to polish their CV.

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  14. DrugMonkey Says:

    “those are the breaks sack up this is how it is you lose”

    That is about the least likely reading of my comments on this topic that can be imagined. Particularly for devoted Readers such as yourself PinPun.

    Is it really so hard to grasp the real purpose here?

    Like

  15. Marc Says:

    Curious. I don’t think such a thing would happen in my field. If the paper being worked on were close to done the person leaving would just continue to work on it. If the data collection was done, there’s no reason the person has to still be in the lab to finish up first author duties.

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  16. Enkidu Says:

    This happened to me. Grad student started project, did experiments, and had a first draft consisting of the Introduction and Results. Then he left for his post-doc and I was charged with getting the paper out. Except that it wasn’t just polishing up a draft; I had to figure out a new assay that was giving inconsistant results, and in doing so I ended up contributing half the data in the paper. Then I re-wrote the results based on the new data and wrote the discussion (along with heavy edits by the bosses), handled the submission, fielded the reviewer’s comments… ugh.

    There was a huge dispute in the lab between the bosses and the remaining grad students because the students felt that the departed student got a “freebie” first author paper. Bosses decided on the “asterisk” aka dual first-author status for myself and the departed as a compromise, but the departed still got listed first so now it is always referred to as his paper. I do feel sad that the asterisk, while good in theory, is essentially meaningless. But the anger generated in lab was way worse than my dual-author remorse. I wanted to go hide under a rock when all the fighting broke out over that paper!

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  17. Pinko Punko Says:

    DM, I think I would say it differently than you. I would split the baby, if the finishing of the paper were truly the sealing of the deal, the finisher would be minimally co-first author and the leavee would perhaps be co-first author with a second position, which is a nod to the fact that some might consider the first more meaningful. I do not subscribe that a shared credit is meaningless and a lie. I only argue against the hard and fast position because in my experience and that of many of my colleagues, there is a non-sociopathic phenotype of foot dragging of many many PIs that cause these situations to exist through zero fault of the person that has to leave the lab.

    Here is the autobiography: This is a phenotype of one of my advisors. People leave the lab with essentially complete works that get submitted 18 months later, sometimes they make out with first authorships because the work was that complete. Sometimes they end up with nothing because the paper never gets submitted. I escaped this situation by being in a lab where I could essentially perform any requested experiments and I pushed and pushed on getting PI to sign off on draft. This is why I argue about having rules- of course there are exceptions. Of course I do not want to reward deluded students and post-docs that didn’t finish. I think that at high-powered places good students and individuals are more likely to be screwed by their PIs and perhaps at places where the rest of us might be, students and post-docs do not have any sense of what it really takes.

    As to the asterix situation, it is not perfect. One hopes that letters attempt to reflect the situation adequately.

    Like

  18. drugmonkey Says:

    PP says it considerably more eloquently but the bottom line is that the meaning of the asterix is illusory and serves only to buy the first-author deserving work of the second-listed. We would all be better served if such individuals refuse AND PIs were shamed/forced into managing authorships better. It will not escape your attention that an essential part* of this would be a minor, but significant, roll back of GlamourScience. Which is, of course, THE driver of this bullshit.

    *intentional or not

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  19. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Oh, DM, not you too? You and CPP come across as very small-minded in this discussion of co-first authorship.

    I understand it might not take the coordinated effort of multiple skilled scientists to crank out some IF=3 birdcage liner, where the “hypothesis” is trivially obvious.

    But there are plenty of people who recognize that biology is complex, and worthwhile questions sometimes require major effort by two separate labs and investigators with different skill sets.

    Like

  20. drugmonkey Says:

    So publish 2 papers N-c. Or is it just too much to ask your ever so expansive scientific apprehension to span two whole papers?

    Like

  21. david Says:

    It’s even more extreme in industry. If you leave the company, you’re off the paper. You can sometimes tell when somebody’s looking for a new job when they start up a flurry of publishing.

    Like

  22. HFM Says:

    I’ve seen this, and I agree with it (in most cases). Even if someone leaves a “99% done” story behind, that last yard is notoriously long. I don’t want to clean up someone’s mess, fix stubborn assays, tangle with reviewers, etc for a lousy second authorship. And if it was really that close to being done, why did they leave it behind anyway? A “99% done” manuscript that sits in a drawer is worthless, either for science or your career.

    As for doodlebugs, I’m resigned to them – some papers are legitimately big enough that more than one person is a lead and/or senior author. Whether they should be allowed to get that big is another question. However, I recognize that a GlamourMagz paper of “HFM* and ABC* et al” is better for both of us than splitting the data into two SubfieldMagz papers. Until that changes, I’m learning to love the *.

    Like

  23. Neuro-conservative Says:

    CPP: “I have never worked for even a near-sociopath.”

    But can your trainees say the same?

    Like

  24. drugmonkey Says:

    Hahahahahhahahah! Good one N-c!!!!! Ahahaahahah.

    Of course it is axiomatic that each and every one of us that supervises trainees thinks that we are more awesome than they do. And each and every trainee knows that they are the smartest hardest working trainee evah.

    Like

  25. Joe Says:

    Trainees need to realize this. If you leave the lab with out submitting the paper, you’re giving up the right to be first author. I have been on committees for so many students that were in a rush to graduate and leave. These students often leave with one paper published and two “about to be submitted”. Students, please, stay for one more month or two and get those things out the door. What’s two months out of 6.5 years? You’re at the top of the game for this project, and you’re going to leave without finishing the pubs? It’ll take a year for someone else to be sufficiently trained to finish those few experiments.

    From the person who takes over the project, it has to be a good deal. If they can knock out that one figure without too much effort, then they can be happy being second author. If they have to spend a lot of time and effort to get the study done, then they deserve first authorship no matter who wrote the paper.

    Like

  26. Spiny Norman Says:

    @Joe, bingo.

    If only grad students and postdocs understood this early in their careers.

    I was lucky because the first paper I was a co-author on was one of these — so I learned the lesson right up front. I was author #3. Postdoc #1 had started the project and did indeed do the bulk of the lab work. Postdoc #2 and I finished the experiments, prepared manuscript (I wrote most of it), submitted it, and revised it. Postdoc #1 went a little berserk over the fact that he was demoted to second author, but he already had left for a faculty position at a good school. That’s life, folks.

    Like

  27. DJMH Says:

    I’m with you, I only object to leaving behind a manuscript and ending up FOURTH author. And no, authors 2 and 3 weren’t in the lab any more either.

    Still, no question that the person who gets it out the door deserves first. If it’s really just a trivial western blot or what have you, then obviously the departed should be willing to return to complete it, no? So I am suspicious of people who claim “it was all written” or what have you.

    Like

  28. A Says:

    What if you depart and get moved from the first author to an “Acknowledgement” section?

    Like

  29. drugmonkey Says:

    that would all depend on the details. It is not inconceivable that a paper moves so far from the original discussions based on one experiment that this would be the appropriate action.

    Like


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