Who is the last author on a paper? Is it the person who did the least work? Or is it the PI of the lab where the work was done? When I started grad school in 2000, the norm in ecology was still that the last author on a paper was the person who did the least work. But, more recently, it has seemed to me that the norm is that the last author on a paper is the “senior” author (usually the PI). However, if you talk with other ecologists about the topic, it’s clear that there’s variation in views, and that not everyone is on the same page.
Similarly, my impression is that there’s been a shift in how corresponding authorship is viewed. When I was a grad student, the corresponding author was usually the first author, and mostly just indicated who had submitted the manuscript. But there’s been a shift to having the last author be the corresponding author. I am not alone in noticing this shift and in thinking that now corresponding authorship is used to claim leadership for the work.
For papers from my PhD and postdoc, I was first and corresponding author, and it never was discussed that someone else might be the corresponding author. But when I started a faculty position, I was told that I needed to be last and corresponding author on papers out of my lab. But if corresponding authorship was so important for me as a new faculty member, wasn’t it also important for my grad students and postdocs?
This all made me start thinking more about views on last and corresponding authorship, whether they were changing over time, and what might be driving those changes. (I should note that, in some cases, I have been first and corresponding author for papers out of my lab. Terry McGlynn has noted that this combination is especially common for people working at teaching-centered institutions.)
I was thinking about this topic again more recently as we were deciding on authorship order for a manuscript. That led me to post a series of tweets where I mused about authorship practices in ecology which then led me to do a poll on this blog related to the topic. This is the first in what will be a series of posts analyzing those data. I’ve put the data and code on github, so you can follow along there if you’d like. (I’m trying to use this as an opportunity to try to get better at R, version control, and R markdown.)
Before I go further, I want to make sure I acknowledge that there are good arguments that our current system is outdated, and that a system that explicitly lists contributions of each author would be better. I appreciate that perspective, but I don’t think the current system is going away any time soon. So, I’m hoping to at least shed some light on how the current system is being used.
In this post, I will go through the basics regarding who the respondents were and will go through the major results of the four main questions. Future posts will do more with cross-factor analysis (i.e., were people with characteristic X more likely to answer Y to a particular question?), go more into earlier surveys on this topic, and also cover more related to views on authorship. My guess is that, in the end, I will write all this up for publication in a more traditional format. Suggestions related to analyses, background material, or good publication venues for this sort of thing are all welcome!
Info on the poll
The poll had four main questions:
- For ecology papers, do you consider the last author to be the senior author?
- Which of the following statements most closely matches the current norms in ecology in terms of who is corresponding author?
- Which of the following statements would be best practice in terms of who is corresponding author?
- If someone includes a statement on his/her CV indicating they have used a first/last author emphasis, do you pay attention to that?
It also asked about the respondent’s primary research area, whether their research is primarily basic or applied, how frequently they conduct interdisciplinary research, how many years post-PhD they are, where they live, and what their current department is.
The poll first appeared on 6 April 2016 and ran for two weeks. More on data manipulation can be found in this R markdown file. After removing four blank responses, there were 1122 responses to the poll. Full information on the respondents is also available in the R markdown file. I’m just going to summarize some of the major characteristics here.
Perhaps not surprisingly, most (80%) of the respondents indicated ecology as their primary research field (Table 1).
Table 1. Primary research area of respondents to poll on last and corresponding authorship, sorted in decreasing order of commonness.
Respondents included current students through those who received their PhD over 20 years ago (Table 2).
Table 2. Number of years since receiving PhD for poll respondents.
Respondents mostly live in North America and Europe, but we also received some responses from Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America (Table 3).*
Table 3. Geographic location of poll respondents, sorted alphabetically.
Okay, so what were the responses to the questions? (Note that each figure below has the question as the figure title, and the different responses are labelled on the bars.)
Based on these results, it seems clear that, for ecology papers, most people now view the last author as the senior author (i.e., lab head or PI; Figure 1). But it’s certainly not unanimous; the three “no”-related options garnered 14% of the responses.
Figure 1. Views on whether the last author is the senior author. Based on questions from a few early respondents, a note was added to the poll indicating that the “senior author” is the person who runs the lab.
One way to try to make sure everyone is on the same page would be to state directly on one’s CV (as I do) that you are using the last author position as one of emphasis. I wasn’t surprised to see that most people (70% of respondents) hadn’t seen a CV statement to this effect (Figure 2). I was surprised to see that 29% said they would not pay attention to such a statement. It will be interesting to look at whether the “no” responses to this question also tended to be “no” responses to the first question. That awaits further analysis!
Figure 2. While most people have never seen a statement indicating a first/last author emphasis, most people do or would pay attention to such a statement.
There was substantial variation in how people view the corresponding author position (Figure 3). A majority (54%) selected the statement, “The corresponding author uploaded the files, managed the revisions and wrote the response to reviewers, and took responsibility for the paper after publication”. The next most common response (19%) was that the corresponding author is simply the person who uploaded the files (usually the first author). Only 7% view the corresponding author as the senior author; I was a little surprised this number wasn’t higher. In this respect, I think ecology still differs from many other fields (where the last author tends to be the PI and the corresponding author).
Figure 3. Views on current practices regarding corresponding authorship in ecology.
A somewhat larger majority (61%) viewed it as best practice for the corresponding author to be the person who “uploaded the files, managed the revisions and wrote the response to reviewers, and took responsibility for the paper after publication” (Figure 4). Only 4% of respondents thought that it would be the best practice to have the corresponding author be the senior author. I was a little surprised that more people didn’t choose the option regarding stability of contact info and/or internet access, but it might be that those are part of what people view as taking responsibility for the paper after publication (which was in two of the other options).
Figure 4. Views on best practices for corresponding authorship in ecology.
That’s it for the first round of results. As I said, I’m planning several follow up posts, and am happy to receive feedback on what to look for, things to read, etc. The next post will go more into looking at whether views on last authorship correlated (or not) with various traits. (update 6/28/16: Here’s the link to that post.) I’m excited about these results!
The poll was developed with input from Alex Bond, Linda Campbell, Kathy Cottingham, and Andrea Kirkwood, who all helped me think through what to ask about and how to phrase the questions and answer options. Many thanks to them for their help! And, while I’m doing acknowledgments: Auriel Fournier, Jaime Ashander, and Rayna Harris provided R help that got me over some key hurdles. Zen Faulkes pointed out that these figures would be easier to read if I rotated the bars. Thanks to all of them! Finally, this poll was confirmed as exempt from ongoing IRB review (UMich IRB #: HUM00114140).
* Apologies to the Kiwis who had to choose “Australia”! It was only because of doing this survey that I learned that some places, including New Zealand, are not considered part of any continent.
Since ecologists are usually in departments with other flavors of biologists who generally favor the last author as lab head convention, it is a risky business to deviate from this, at least early in your career. The trouble with those statements about who did what is they are often extremely incorrect. Probably each author would write those differently. I have seen extremely unfair such statements. This can be the result of ignorance as to what other people did, especially when two or more institutions are involved. Whomever writes the statement will naturally know more about their own contribution. I ignore those statements, understanding how often they are just dead wrong.
“The trouble with those statements about who did what is they are often extremely incorrect. Probably each author would write those differently. I have seen extremely unfair such statements. ”
I’m surprised to hear this, that’s completely different than my own experience Joan. Every paper I’ve ever been on that had an author contribution statement, had it agreed to by all the authors. Certainly not just written by one of the authors who was ignorant of what the other authors did!
I wonder how often the contributions are reviewed by all authors before submission. That would be ideal, but I’m sure there are times where it doesn’t happen. For example, if it’s ticking boxes while submitting the paper, it seems more likely that it will be based on the corresponding author’s views.
“I wonder how often the contributions are reviewed by all authors before submission.”
I’m setting up a poll to find out!
Would be cool to find out the norms on this!
I’ve seen papers where, say, “X, Y, and Z analyzed the data” actually means “Y analyzed the data, X provided one email’s worth of advice to Y on how to analyze the data, and Z didn’t really do anything but we have to put him on the paper and he could conceivably have analyzed the data.” I guess this is unavoidable, but it’s kind of sad how much paper credit comes down to the whims of the first author (or the first author’s PI).
I like last author as lab head, but only as corresponding IF
1. the first author won’t be able to fully answer scientific Qs about the MS (typical in the case of undergrads)
2. the first author _know_ they’ll be leaving the academic world of science and so won’t be around to answer such Qs. MS and PhD students and postdocs may or may not stay in the long run, but I think it is really important to promote them in the short run. That absolutely outweighs considerations of people being able to get Qs answered. Folks with Qs should be able to see who is last author, and ask that person if they don’t hear back from the first and corresponding author.
I absolutely agree that what’s considered normal is changing SUPER quickly in Ecology. I’m from the era when PhD papers were largely solo-authored. First, corresponding, and last, all in one.
I agree with these views. I used to think corresponding authorship didn’t matter. But it’s clear now that it does, at least to some people, and so I have used the same approach you lay out. The default is for the first author to be the corresponding author, with the exception being when the first author is leaving academia. We will need to decide this summer what to do about corresponding authorship for a manuscript that will be submitted by an undergrad who will be continuing on in EEB, starting a grad program in the fall. I haven’t thought enough about that case yet, so haven’t decided yet if it makes sense for her to be corresponding author on that submission or not.
One thing I’m unclear on: other than some sort of “recognition” as contributing author, does who is marked as contributing author really matter at all any more? I mean in a de facto sense. Like, if I can’t get in touch with the first author, no big deal, I’ll google the email address of the last author…
Two surprises for me from this poll and the comments so far:
1. Ecology isn’t really in a transition period any more between last authorship practices. The “last author = PI” convention has pretty much taken over at this point. Or if it hasn’t, the writing’s on the wall. So much as I dislike that convention and continue to think it’s a bad fit for how the majority of ecology labs operate, I guess I’ll adopt it. You can’t swim against the tide on something like this.
2. That some people worry about who the corresponding author is, in particular taking the view that it’s a badge of honor that can and should be used to promote trainees. I had no idea! I’ve never thought of corresponding author status that way.
Yes, I agree that the last as senior transition has happened. I’ve pretty fully adopted it at this point, except in cases where I’m first author (which still happens sometimes, but not often).
The corresponding authorship as a badge of honor is not nearly as far along, but I think we’re moving in that direction at a pretty rapid rate.
Fortunately, the usual practice in my lab is that the first author is the corresponding author, unless that person isn’t in a good position to handle correspondence for some reason (e.g., they’re leaving science or whatever). Not because “corresponding author” is a badge of honor, above and beyond being first author, but just because as first author it’s your ms. You’re the one who did most of the work, so you’re the one who gets the “honor” of uploading the ms and corresponding with the journal.
In theory, you also get to respond to any post-publication questions from readers. Not because that’s a badge of honor or because it will help you network and build your contacts and reputation, but just because you’re the one who’s in best position to do so. But in my experience this is kind of a moot point for most papers. As far as I can recall no paper I’ve been on has gotten any post-publication inquiries.
I agree with all of Jeremy’s points here, but in wet lab cultures even when all of this is true (which I expect is frequently the case) the PI is still the corresponding author. I think this is counterproductive and hope that we don’t move in that direction.
After sharing this with my colleagues at UF I got an email back from an ecologist who had moved here from another university indicating that at their former university they had to be either first or corresponding author for a publication to count towards tenure.
Also worth noting that, to the extent that “corresponding author” gets treated as a ‘badge of honor’–i.e. it goes to whichever junior author ‘needs’ it most in an attempt to slightly boost their career prospects–it stops functioning as a ‘badge of honor’, doesn’t it? I mean, insofar as people are designating the corresponding author in a way that’s disconnected from who did the work on the ms, that seems to me to be a reason to not care who the corresponding author was (e.g., when evaluating the cv’s of applicants for jobs, grants, or fellowships). Note that I say this as someone who ordinarily designates the first author as the corresponding author–just not as a badge of honor or as a way of conveying any information over and above that conveyed by first authorship.
I think this works for authorship generally. To the extent that authorship practices are changing and papers are accumulating more and more middle authors who previously would’ve been merely acknowledged, middle authorship provides less and less of a career boost. More on this in a future post, perhaps…
This is a really useful and interesting post. In fact we were just discussing this in a faculty meeting and there were a lot of opinions and no data. Thanks for fixing that!
It’s interesting to see the change over the last 5 years since we conducted a similar poll:
The number of responses was much smaller (n = 27) so some of this could certainly just be noise, but we had:
Yes: 5 (19%)
Not sure, but probably Yes: 9 (33%)
Not sure, but probably No: 3 (11%)
No: 10 (37%)
So definitely a big shift towards last == senior since 2011.
I’m encouraged that the field has not shifted culture towards senior == corresponding author. One of the things that is really healthy about ecology as a field is that students and postdocs typically take the leadership role in their projects and I think we should do everything we can to acknowledge and encourage that. Having them as corresponding authors in most cases is one way to do that.
Like several other people who have been around for a few years, I’m kind of shocked to see how quickly this has changed and how I’m now in a minority.
I kind of always liked ecology’s egalitarian view that authors were listed in order of contribution and rank didn’t play a role. I’m senior enough I expect I will continue to do this and put a note at the top of my pub list in my CV. But I’m kind of bummed we’ve gone the way of the medical research Goliath.
Speaking of which, I wonder if whether an institution has a medical school changes things. Here at Maine I think the majority of people, certainly in ecology, but I think in most of the sciences, don’t follow the senior author last convention and I rarely hear it discussed in e.g. peer committees. But my colleague at University of Vermont (in most ways a peer institution except it does have a medical school) says it regularly comes up at peer committee meetings beyond the department level and is necessary.
Brian – I agree with you on all counts. I think it would be a mistake to view this paper as a groundswell of new conventions to follow, though they certainly point out that shifts are happening. The paper has significant biases and weaknesses, as well. There are millions of ecologists (sample size too small); leaders in the field (tending to be older) are under sampled; bench scientists should have been represented in equal number (because a premise of the paper is that ecologists understand the conventions in other fields); and there are other key questions to be asked (e.g., are first-authored publications important or necessary anymore at all in assessing a person’s contribution to the specific work or, overall, the person’s contribution to the field?)
Ecology is done by teams organized in a variety of different ways, but rarely dependent on access to a single lab’s resources. The convention in bench sciences is that the PI (in the senior slot) can sometimes have little to no other inputs other than having their name on the door of the lab where work is done. The assumption is that at minimum the senior PI created an intellectual environment of approaches and expenses-paid workspace – but my students work in the field and interact widely with other colleagues (in addition to thesis projects they do with me) – the same assumed conventions as to how their ideas and data sets evolve do not apply. I will continue telling my students, whose work lives are not defined by bricks and mortar bench access for data collection, that author order matters based on inputs to the cradle to grave process. The senior position should be occupied by someone who contributed mightily to the work itself (not just the opportunity to work), and first authorship is also important.
What does seem critical to do from now on based on this paper, is describe each author’s contribution in each paper. Period! Once that has been done for a decade or two, then we can define the meaning of author order based on actual data.
“Ecology is done by teams organized in a variety of different ways, but rarely dependent on access to a single lab’s resources. ”
I’d quibble with that last phrase. Can you point to data showing that it’s rare for all of the authors on a paper to be from the same lab? Because anecdotally, I think that’s quite common in ecology. Indeed, I’d guess it’s the most common sort of paper. And not just for papers which involve working at a lab bench or at a computer rather than out in the field.
My instinct is that Jeremy is right that the majority of ecological research is single lab, but I agree with Katie that lots of great work ends up getting done by teams involving more than one lab. I think the last == senior/PI convention can decrease the prevalence of this important collaborative work, which was the core of my early argument for why we as a field shouldn’t make the shift:
So, in concept I agree with Brian and Katie about the desirability of eschewing this convention, but I decided several years ago that the ship had sailed and there was no going back. I think this data supports that conclusion and I think that >1100 responses is a convincing sample size. I’m looking forward to seeing Meg’s follow-up analyses to see if different subsections of the community view this differently.
Ethan said “I’m looking forward to seeing Meg’s follow-up analyses to see if different subsections of the community view this differently.” I’m working on it right now! 🙂
We’ve employed this practice since we were postdocs ourselves and like it. The problem I have with the “list authors in order of contribution” approach is that contribution isn’t a one-dimensional quantity. The contributions of the PI are usually of a different kind than those of the first author. They can’t be readily compared and both are often necessary for a successful paper. Putting the senior author last allows this distinction of roles (although it can be ambiguous).
I have a long-standing collaboration with another PI with many co-advised students and postdocs. We’ve had a few cases of dickering over who gets the last position. Maybe we’ll pioneer the “the last two authors contributed equally to this publication” footnote.
> Maybe we’ll pioneer the “the last two authors contributed equally to this publication” footnote.
I’ve actually seen that a couple of times now on big multi-authored papers, and it does address my concerns in this area assuming folks pay attention to it.
I co-supervised a student with a colleague. We agreed to more or less alternate last author position on the resulting papers (that’s the way it worked out in practice, at any rate).
More generally I’d say that your point about contribution not being one-dimensional highlights the fact that author line position is a bad way to categorize contributions more generally. I hope that taxonomies for describing contributions (e.g., http://www.nature.com/news/publishing-credit-where-credit-is-due-1.15033, http://www.nature.com/news/digital-badges-aim-to-clear-up-politics-of-authorship-1.18443?WT.mc_id=TWT_NatureNews) gain traction and serve as as more general replacement for (or at least complement to) order. This is basically what Katie was suggesting above, but in a more structured way.
I find it interesting that many of you find the last=PI thing new. It’s been that way in my experience going back to my undergrad (late-90s/early 2000s). Birds vs. other taxa?
Interesting! I would love to know. Too bad I didn’t think to include a taxon of study category in the poll!
This is really interesting. When an undergrad (mid 2000s) the PI of one lab I worked with was clear that he would be the first author on ALL publications coming out of his lab regardless (wildlife behavior research). He obtained is PhD in the early 70s so maybe that was the thing back then. Otherwise, as an undergraduate (a different lab, Evol Bio) and then a graduate (Conservation Bio/Evo Bio), I learned that relative contributions should guide order of authorship and this should be discussed at the planning stages of a project and again before the ms was written up. PIs were not simply placed as last author.
I now work for an agency and our tradition is that a team of interested people will design a project (the broad outlines, central questions) and one person takes the lead with implementing it, writing it up, submitting it, revising, etc. They are the first author and the corresponding author by default because they did the most work and know the data/results/interpretation best. This person can be a graduate student, a scientist or even a technician. At no time in graduate school or afterwards have I ever heard that the corresponding author was a badge of honor. And frankly, I do not see why this would be the case.
One question: in the case that the corresponding author is the last/senior author, does that person actually do the revisions, answer questions, get the figs revised, etc, etc, or is that work referred back to the first author who does the work, writes up the response and then forwards the whole thing back to the corresponding author who then merely forwards it back to the journal editor?
I’m sure there’s variation in this, including the reasons for why the last author is also the corresponding author. I am last and corresponding authors on papers for a postdoc of mine who left academia. We worked on the revisions together, but the questions regarding the papers come to me now. (Jeremy mentioned above that he hasn’t received questions. I have received a few related to my former postdoc’s papers.) I then go back through her old lab notebooks (which I have) and do my best to answer them. She kept very organized notes, which makes this task much easier!
I’m a plant evolutionary biologist (mostly organismal), started grad school in 2000. As long as I have known, last author was PI of the lab. These series of twitter and blog posts were the first I had known that this was a newer practice for ecologists, and maybe others. Fascinating!
I’d heard of this, but didn’t think it was widespread. I know authors like Drs. Charlie Krebs, Roy Turkington, and Judith Myers associated with the University of British Columbia put their names on papers according to who did the most work.
If a student’s name is at the beginning and their name is at the end then the student did the most work. In some papers one of their names are at the beginning and the student’s name is in the middle or at the end then that indicates the paper underwent significant rewrites by the primary author who probably contributed more data.
But if people want to assume that I did the most work because my name is last, as it usually will be when working with the giants, I’m good with that. 🙂
“But if people want to assume that I did the most work because my name is last, as it usually will be when working with the giants, I’m good with that. :-)”
That doesn’t actually happen of course. When people see a name they don’t recognize as last author and see the famous PI’s name somewhere earlier in the author list, they infer–correctly–that authors are listed in order of their overall contribution to the ms. 🙂
I’m still wondering: *why* did ecology apparently undergo such a rapid cultural shift towards the convention last author = senior author? Particularly given that (i) a fair number of senior people seem not to like the shift (me, Brian, Marc Cadotte…), (ii) nobody has been publicly advocating for it as far as I know, and (iii) many other cultural changes for which there’s been prominent public advocacy *haven’t* happened, at least not nearly so rapidly. For instance, most of us still care about publishing first-authored papers in selective, high-impact journals, whether or not those journals are author-pays open access, despite plenty of people arguing that that’s horrible for science. Most of us still use null hypothesis significance tests despite plenty of people arguing that they’re horrible for science. Etc.
Presumably part of it is that a shift in authorship practices doesn’t create work for anyone or require a big adjustment on anyone’s part. But I doubt that’s the whole story, since there are other recent changes in practice that have taken hold rapidly despite creating work for people–think of data sharing mandates.
There’s of course a huge sociological literature on this sort of thing–about why some cultural attitudes and practices shift quickly, whereas others change only slowly or not at all. But I don’t know that literature at all, and have no idea what it has to say about changing authorship practices in ecology.
I really think it’s because the model of how research in ecology gets done – and the pressure to build a large number of papers – has changed along with authorship conventions.
A couple decades ago, dissertations tended to be the work of a single investigator, and perhaps some hired or volunteer techs and mentees, and some involvement of the advisor. This would result in either sole-authors papers, two authors (students and advisor), and maybe some trainees of the grad student. (e.g., my dissertation papers had multiple authors, but they were students working with me, and it was in descending order and/or alphabetical after me as lead author).
Now, projects tend to be more collaborative, and often involve collaborations with other laboratories that have different skill sets or equipment. Most grad students I know are actively collaborating with people in labs outside their PI’s lab, by design as a part of their dissertation. This means that papers will have more authors on them who aren’t trainees, and there may be multiple senior authors on the paper, and sorting out who is who will matter to a bunch of people.
Also, nowadays I think it’s pretty rare for a professor to think, “I have enough papers and so I don’t need to include my name on the paper of one of my students” because the pressure for tenure, promotion, grants, awards, yadda yadda is more intense than it ever really should be if we’re trying to do innovative work. But there it is. And so even if the PI hasn’t been deeply involved, they are now (mostly) putting their names on the papers of their students even if their only role was some casual conversation, bench space, and some light edits. And most (feel like) they need to do this for career reasons.
Regardless, I think this convention, even if we don’t like it, is calling a spade a spade — we might not want to think that our labs and academic community has a dominance hierarchy but it clearly does. Even if the PI’s name is buried as a middle author, a lot of people reading will pick out that name and infer, ‘ah, so that’s whose lab this came out of.’
We all are working in a hierarchy of some sort, and the community functions on the basis of its structure. One of the first things you get when you meet a grad student is who their PI is, as a matter of identity more than anything else. If someone lands a postdoc, odds are they’ll tell you with whom they are working before they tell you what they’re doing or where they are going. I’d find it weird if our way of assigning credit to our work somehow wasn’t scaffolded on this hierarchy. Not that it’s a good thing, but just represents how things are.
I haven’t been around long enough to know any other way. But my guess is that if the change has been fast it’s because it’s good for individual *PIs*. I can’t think of any reason this change would be good (or bad) for science. I also don’t think that it’s very easy to change the culture “for the good of science,” but it’s likely very easy to change the culture for self-interest. Terry’s thought about the need for lab leaders to highlight the work coming out of their lab makes sense to me.
That’s probably right, Margaret. But it raises the question: why was the convention ever any other way? Remembering that pressure on PIs to publish papers with their names on them long predates this culture shift. “Publish or perish” is a fairly recent phenomenon (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/friday-links-animals-suck-at-jumping-and-more/), but not *that* recent.
Well, that was before my time… But I’d venture that the old way was simpler. So, it only made sense for things to change once the benefits outweighed the costs.
Interesting perspective from a friend of mine, who is an English professor: “That’s ridiculous (having the senior/corresponding author as last author). By doing so, the senior author is acting against his/her own self-interests, because the paper then becomes known as “juniorauthor at al.” and their role in it will be forgotten/not known to many.” (Sounds like a rather ecological perspective!). “If that’s the case, why not just change the citation convention to “et al. & Seniorperson?” “Especially if the scientist is female, this just seems like a (maybe not so)micro-aggression, just another way to ignore them.”
I’ve seen PIs claiming corresponding authorship but not first authorship, when the practical work is done by PhD student / postdoc, but the idea is from PI and it related to their major interest/research program. Those are also the papers the PIs will talk about in the meetings and invited talks, and they are also in best position to discuss the contents of the papers. Thus, in that case, it’s not a honorific but rather claiming a stronger stake in developing the field.
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In my personal experience putting the boss’s name last was often a fair reflection of their inputs – in that they made the smallest contribution to the science in the paper. Since nobody else has mentioned this I presume that I have been exceptionally inept in my choice of bosses !.
A nice comment roll to read after a Sunday nap…errr…while hard at work catching up on reprints.
There is another reason I am glad that we are formalizing the convention of last author=PI (and forgive me if I missed it in all the excellent discussion). But collaborations are such multivariate things, it is increasingly difficult to assign a rank variable to contribution. So how does a lead author, in such cases, communicate the message to a contributor “Of all the people I worked with on this project, you my friend, contributed the least.”?, or “Good news, Dr. X! After some consideration, I have decided that you were NOT the least consequential person on this paper. That distinction belongs to Dr. Y!”.
This may be why authorship order persists as a convention–because there’s some vagueness to it. In my followup poll asking about author contribution statements, I asked whether people would want to see a system in which everyone’s % contribution to the ms was specified and had to add up to 100%. Not many people want to go that route of increased precision. As you say, it’s difficult and awkward to agree those percentages. But on the other hand, judging by the poll results author contribution statements don’t look to me like they’re going to replace author order anytime soon…
Which is why, perhaps, a system in which the first author designates the person who wrote the first draft, and the last author is the person whose vision helped convince the muckity-mucks to fund the work, may be best. A statement declaring that middle authors are arrayed randomly would round things out.
Increased precision, as we tell our students, doesn’t mean increased accuracy. How do we compare the contribution of one person’s single, searing insight in the interpretation of the data, to another who devoted one hour a day, for a month, to identifying taxa in the samples?
I agree with pheidole that a statement of % input would probably be spuriously precise, and I would add that if people cannot agree about author order they are never going to agree about % contribution.
Inspiration vs perspiration inputs cannot be measured on the same scale, but I see no problem with a clear statement that A had a brilliant insight, B slogged through 2000 soil samples, C crunched the numbers and D raised the money and stuck his/her head round the door to check progress every now and then. I once added an author to a paper purely on the basis of an an insight that got the project over a hump in the road when it would otherwise have been shelved due to other pressures.
Some journal guidelines on authorship are explicit that raising funds and getting permits are not qualifications for authorship, which would seem to exclude those heads of groups (who may not be PIs) who do not make an intellectual contribution to the science.
I know author contribution statements (as well as authorship) are not reliable. I am sure in many cases, they contain accurate information, but it is easy to cheat the system. I don’t think putting % makes much difference or make the problem worse. When there is an explicit number (e.g., say the contribution is 50% even though practically none), outsiders simply have to take the value as it is.
“I know author contribution statements (as well as authorship) are not reliable.”
Views on that vary, according to the results of the poll I just did…
I think the variability in the poll reflects ignorance. For example, if there is a poll for gender bias (or anything) (i.e., does it exist?), there will be a variable result, but it simply shows ignorance of some people.
I think most people know unfair examples of authorship (and statements) (e.g., the example given by Joan). At the same time, even if such cases are recognized, the problem does not matter to many people because it does not cause immediate problem to them.
Of course, the definition of authorship will vary. Some people can have extreme views on authorship and honestly believe they are good even if perceived wrong by the majority. But when there is no force to standardize the view and punish cheaters, making the system more explicit (i.e., % based) is dangerous.
The poll asked about people’s own experiences and views. I don’t think people are ignorant of their own experiences and views.
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