Stupid CV tricks: Does a lack of middle authorships mean you are a jerk?

May 6, 2013

Frequently commenter miko offered this up for consideration:

Being only ever first (or last) might make you look independent but also might make you look uncollaborative or, more likely, that no one likes you.

Fascinating remark. Have you ever heard anyone say this for real? Not in terms of mere publication numbers, I’ve heard that one more than once (as in “Can’t you just get on some more papers” from people concerned about a thin publication record from an earlier-career scientist). But in terms of your ability to collaborate productively. Play well with others, so to speak.

I can’t really remember hearing this. Mostly people are only mentioning collaborative, middle-author contributions to denigrate the person’s level of independence and/or to try to subtract credit from their publication count.

27 Responses to “Stupid CV tricks: Does a lack of middle authorships mean you are a jerk?”

  1. scicurious Says:

    I have definitely heard this, esp in grad school I’ve heard you need middle authors to show you don’t run with scissors. What I’ve also heard is too MANY middle authors (at the expense of firsts) is bad, it appears that there’s a golden ratio.


  2. juniorprof Says:

    There is no end to stupid criticisms that can be created when paylines are 8% and below. And I’ve never heard this one, but I am not surprised either.


  3. GM Says:

    So let me get this straight – if you happen to be around knowing how to do something and able to help people who can’t do it on their own without a too big loss of your own time, you should not be helping them because it would look bad on your CV to have a long list of second and middle authorship entries?

    If that’s true, the system is even more messed up than I thought…


  4. Terry Says:

    I haven’t heard it before, but I see where the notion comes from.

    Another alternative interpretation is that a shortage of middle authorship papers means that you aren’t able to offer what other people need (data, analytical skills, the right equipment). People may like you plenty, and you might be really nice, but aren’t delivering for coauthors for one reason or another.

    Some people might not have many middle author papers just because they’re not outgoing people and just haven’t built that network.


  5. Bashir Says:

    I’ve heard all sorts of things, including this. Also a first author paper with 2 co-authors is less good than one with 3. Bigger group makes you look like better leader.

    Is there any variation in CVs that can’t be used as evidence of quality or lack thereof?


  6. Drugmonkey Says:

    Good point Bashir.


  7. eeke Says:

    ” Bigger group makes you look like better leader.”

    Really? Then why not pack the author list with guests? One could say that a smaller author list gives the first author more credit – this person did most or all of the work. There are positives to both (short vs long author list).


  8. Dr. Noncoding Says:

    I have heard this only in the context of being interpreted as a non-team player. Hence, I was told that its good to have a few middle author papers interspersed between first authored ones. Never heard it in the context of being a jerk.


  9. Physician Scientist Says:

    I’ve heard this in the context of industry. That is…they would like some middle author papers to show that you can be part of a team.

    I run a search committee for junior faculty and I definitely look more favorably upon first authorship in solid journals with a limited number of co-authors. It shows the first author was driving the bus (esp if you see it in both grad school and post-doc – meaning it wasn’t the PI driving).


  10. drugmonkey Says:

    What is a non-team-player if not a jerk?


  11. GM Says:

    Really? Then why not pack the author list with guests? One could say that a smaller author list gives the first author more credit – this person did most or all of the work. There are positives to both (short vs long author list).

    I’ve heard of people putting trainees from the other group on papers so that they show how well the two groups collaborated.


  12. Alex Says:

    The only hard rules are:
    1) As a trainee, more first author papers are better than fewer.
    2) As a group leader, more last/corresponding author papers are better than fewer.
    3) More papers overall are better than fewer.

    Beyond that, it’s all in how you sell it. “I got umpteen middle-author papers because I had a skill that was useful for a lot of different projects and I got to do that technique for a lot of people and learn something about their projects” vs. “Most of my papers are middle author because my project didn’t work out.” Or “My group has a lot of middle-author paper because we developed something that is really useful for a lot of different projects” vs. “My group has a lot of middle author papers because we’ve really struggled to get our own ideas off the ground.”


  13. @ drugmonkey re: team players

    see: lone wolf syndrome

    Math & theory based fields have tons of single author papers. Some folks just like to work alone. That’s fine, not everything is a “team sport”.

    I like working in a team– I have multiple 1st author & multiple middle author papers. The ones I am 1st on, I know everything about who did what for all the figures & methods sections. The mid-author ones, I only know my little “bit” (usually some spectra for a few figures & one methods section).

    But I’ve been talking to some….folks, and apparently it’s “corresponding author” that you need to get nowadays. That is, have your email address published. This is why I use my gmail address for publishing, so it’s tied to me as the correspondent & not the institution I happen to be at.


  14. Dr. Noncoding Says:

    “What is a non-team-player if not a jerk?”

    Jerks act on purpose, usually with malice. On the other hand, a “non-team player” may be perfectly liked by all lab members but due to certain factors beyond his/her control, may not get enough hands-on time on other projects to warrant authorship. For example, to cite just a couple of instances that I have seen in person: (1) A grad student in my previous lab was working on 3-4 sub-projects at once and had no time to help out significantly with other projects. He ended up getting three first-author papers and zero middle author papers (2) A proteomics postdoc in the lab did not have any particular role to play in a bioinformatics based projects or predominantly nucleic acids based projects, which was the focus of the lab. The PI kept him focused on proteomics work and he ended up with a few first author papers from his projects and only one third author paper.

    I am sure there are other scenarios as well where trainees appear to be “jerks” or “non-team” players based purely on their pubs list, but they just haven’t had the opportunity to prove otherwise.


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    I don’t know that I agree Alex. Particularly early in the career arc, I can see some ratio problems. So if a postdoc has, say, seven first author papers and nothing else…it may easily be the case that the person is seen as being in a tough or slow publishing field but has nevertheless done all the heavy lifting. If the person has seven first author pubs and 20 middle author pubs, there might be an eyebrow lifted along the lines of ‘well if it is so easy to publish why are there not more first authorships’. Similarly it might just be seen as “well, those were the ones where it was this particular interchangeable lab-cog’s turn to be first”.


  16. Dave Says:

    If the person has seven first author pubs and 20 middle author pubs, there might be an eyebrow lifted along the lines of ‘well if it is so easy to publish why are there not more first authorships

    I think you are over-thinking this a little……


  17. drugmonkey Says:

    Now, I am almost positive you are not new around here Dave…..


  18. TheGrinch Says:

    I have heard all kinds variations on this — with both positive and negative connotations. I am an early-career faculty, not in biomed and not in US. So perhaps it’s something to do with field. In any case I think balance is the key as usual, so I am aiming for something like what Alex said above.


  19. Busy Says:

    In my field too many single author papers is considered a definite minus (not a team player), unless your papers are so outstandingly good that we wouldn’t care how many people you worked with. There might be in all 20 people in the world with results of that caliber, all others are better of doing some work in teams, and preferably also publish as secondary author in a field outside your area (nothing says “plays well with others” better than that).


  20. Ola Says:

    As Bashir said, the folks using these types of ratios to criticize, usually have a bigger axe to grind. They have to write something, so they go with what they have in front of them, the biosketch, to back up what they already think about you (which is probably true), that you’re an uncollaborative SOB.


  21. profguy Says:

    I have not heard it from people judging someone else’s CV but have heard it from a former trainee of mine once she was a few years past postdoc in a (long term, quasi-soft money but relatively stable) research scientist position. She was still first author on essentially all her papers and felt there was something wrong that she didn’t have more by now where she was second through Nth, whether via students or collaborations. I thought it was a reasonable concern – basically she felt by that point she should be playing a wider range of roles in different projects, other than just doing all the work herself. The good news is that was a few years ago and it did eventually happen – she now is 2nd through Nth author on quite a few papers.


  22. Drugmonkey Says:

    “Why don’t I have more easy pubs” is a valid concern of younger scientists.


  23. So what the conclusion peeps? I have an 1:1 ratio of first author and middle author papers where N=18. How would the search committees see this 😛


  24. Drugmonkey Says:

    Sounds like at least one viewed it favorably. Good for you.


  25. Yes, but I didn’t end up accepting the offer. Lets see who else would like it 😀


  26. drugmonkey Says:

    Really? Passing up an Asst Prof job to wait for next cycle or do you have other offers on hand?


  27. Yes, i know how it sounds. But the position was essentially a teaching position (4 courses/semester, and they expected me to bring in research money as well) and in the long term I think it would have been detrimental for my research career. All of my mentors seemed to be thinking this way. I hope time tell me that I made the right decision. fingers crossed 😀


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