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Before I go further, I want to make sure I acknowledge that there are good arguments that our current system is outdated, and that a system that explicitly lists contributions of each author would be better.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.