Last and corresponding authorship in ecology: a series of blog posts turns into a paper

My paper on last and corresponding authorship appeared in the journal Ecology & Evolution today. Normally I don’t plug my papers on the blog, but this one is different: this paper arose out of a poll and a series of blog posts on the site, so it seems appropriate to wrap things up with a quick post today.

I suppose it’s actually not quite accurate to say the paper arose out of a poll. Before that, I had a tweet storm as I thought through issues, and that, in turn, was motivated by needing to decide on author order for a manuscript. When I was at Georgia Tech, I was told that I should be last author on all papers coming out of my lab as a sign of having driven the work. But I have a paper from work I did as a grad student where I am the last author (with my advisor as a middle author) because I did the least work on the project (Cáceres et al. 2008 Freshwater Biology), so the advice I got at Georgia Tech surprised me at first. At Georgia Tech, I was also told that I needed to be corresponding author on papers out of my lab; when I first got to Michigan, I never heard anyone mention corresponding authorship as something that mattered (and that included when I directly asked a couple of people about it). Notably, though, in the past year I did hear colleagues bring it up a couple of times.

I almost gave up on this paper multiple times, because I wasn’t sure it was worth the time. But I kept hearing comments from colleagues at various institutions about author order or corresponding authorship coming up as an issue, especially related to tenure & promotion discussions, so it seemed important to get this information out there in a format where it could easily be shared.

What did I find? This is the abstract of the paper:

Authorship is intended to convey information regarding credit and responsibility for manuscripts. However, while there is general agreement within ecology that the first author is the person who contributed the most to a particular project, there is less agreement regarding whether being last author is a position of significance and regarding what is indicated by someone being the corresponding author on a manuscript. Using an analysis of papers published in American Naturalist, Ecology, Evolution, and Oikos, I found that: 1) the number of authors on papers is increasing over time; 2) the proportion of first authors as corresponding author has increased over time, as has the proportion of last authors as corresponding author; 3) 84% of papers published in 2016 had the first author as corresponding author; and 4) geographic regions differed in the likelihood of having the first (or last) author as corresponding author. I also carried out an online survey to better understand views on last and corresponding authorship. This survey revealed that most ecologists view the last author as the “senior” author on a paper (that is, the person who runs the research group in which most of the work was carried out), and most ecologists view the corresponding author as the person taking full responsibility for a paper. However, there was substantial variation in views on authorship, especially corresponding authorship. Given these results, I suggest that discussions of authorship have as their starting point that the first author will be corresponding author and the senior author will be last author. I also suggest ways of deciding author order in cases where two senior authors contributed equally.

If you’re interested in finding out more, the paper is open access. Something that is fun is that this is the first paper to appear in Ecology & Evolution’s new paper category, Academic Practice in Ecology and Evolution. Also fun is that, after acceptance, the production staff required that I add an author contribution statement to my sole-authored paper. So, I wrote: {continues below the break}

M.A.D. carried out the literature survey and poll, analyzed the data, and wrote the manuscript. Conveniently, by having only one author, there were no decisions to make regarding author order or corresponding authorship.

I later realized I should have held a brownie bakeoff with myself to decide author order! (That is based on my favorite in this compilation of fun ways of deciding author order.)

As I said, this came out of a series of blog posts. If you’re interested, they were:

  1. Poll: what are your views on last & corresponding authorship?
  2. Last and corresponding authorship practices in ecology, Part I. This post presented the overall results to the questions asking about views on last and corresponding authorship.
  3. What factors influences views on last authorship in ecology? This post looks at the cross tabs for the question about whether the last author is the senior author.
  4. Changes in number of authors and position of corresponding author in ecology papers. (Note: I ended up greatly expanding the number of papers I analyzed in the final paper.)

I was planning on writing up the analysis about the cross factors for the other questions, but I don’t think I ever wrote a blog post on them! (Alternatively: I wrote them but have forgotten and can’t find them.) So, for those, you’ll need to read the paper itself.

The blog posts also included ones where I thought through what recommendations to make; two posts helped me clarify my thoughts and get feedback:

  1. Should ecology papers have guarantors who take full responsibility for a paper? and
  2. Who should be senior author on papers resulting from collaborations between multiple groups?

Thanks to everyone who took the poll and who provided feedback (including in the form of comments on blog posts and/or on twitter) along the way! I also need to especially thank the reviewers – this was definitely another case where the peer review system worked and led to a stronger paper in the end.

7 thoughts on “Last and corresponding authorship in ecology: a series of blog posts turns into a paper

      • I seem to recall that there was some talk of a statistical machismo paper from Brian at one point, but it never happened.

        Of course, Brian is working on a book, which I’m sure will draw from some of his blog posts. So he could well be the first one of us to get a book out of blogging. 🙂

    • I’m going the other direction (i.e. reverse). Walking to work today I realized the answer I wrote to a comp question almost 20 years ago would make a great blog post.

      I was invited once to submit an editorial matching a blog post, but I didn’t jump on it and in fact I waited so long the editorial team turned over and there was no longer a fit. Someday …

      • This is why senior people make good bloggers. We’ve been around a long time and so have had lots of thoughts and done lots of things. All of which can be turned into blog posts quite easily just be doing a “brain dump”. 🙂

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