Thoughts on authorship

Authorship is a hot topic in bioethics classes. How to settle authorship disputes. When you did the work to merit first-author but the student who comes after you and “needs” the publication more urgently gets first-author billing. When the wife (or girlfriend) of the PI gets authorship because she worked in the lab for 2 weeks once, spilling reagents and making messes. When the department chair gets authorship on all papers that come out of his department, even though he contributed nothing to them. When the person who provided funding for the research gets authorship, even though he contributed nothing otherwise to the project.

I have never dealt with any of those scenarios. Well, I had a paper published without my name when I had done some work on it with the promise that I’d be a co-author, but that was just spite, and had zero impact on my career. And I had to include someone as a co-author even though he didn’t do anything for this part of the project, because he whined. But I don’t really care about that either. (I personally wouldn’t do that because a co-author isn’t worth much, but maybe he was worried he wasn’t going to get on the paper that we did promise him. That paper isn’t even written yet, so he has some basis for concern.)

Authorship has come to my attention because I just got a paper accepted into a journal and I had to go around collecting author signatures. I even had to get permission from everyone listed in the acknowledgments to be so listed.

If I had realized how challenging those 2 steps would be, this paper would have had fewer authors and fewer acknowledgments.

It came to my attention again when a poster abstract I submitted for a meeting turned out to require signatures from all the authors. I found myself wondering why we had so many authors.

There aren’t any clear guidelines on how to figure out who merits authorship. One rule is that only someone who made an intellectual contribution should get authorship. That takes care of the wife of the PI who spilled reagents for 2 weeks and the departmental chair or someone trying to push his weight around.

It seems a bit unfair to the lab tech who ran a ton of routine assays. Can you really say that she didn’t contribute intellectually? Troubleshooting the assay and learning it seems like an intellectual contribution. The argument is that you could have contracted that out to any other lab, so it’s not an intellectual contribution. Any trained monkey could have done it. Well. I bet the PI couldn’t have done it.

Everyone listed on my poster abstract did contribute intellectually, and in retrospect I wish we had included the lab tech, because there was some troubleshooting and study design that he was involved in. Oh well, he’ll be listed in the acknowledgments, and the manuscript is more important, and he’ll probably write part of the methods so he’ll be a co-author when/if we write the manuscript.

I wish we had not included the 2 pathologists who scored the slides and the 2 students as authors, in retrospect. Yes, they made intellectual contributions, but I’m not sure the contributions were extensive enough to merit authorship. (I’d like to think this is a well reasoned judgment. But maybe I’m just saying that because I had to collect up the signatures.)

At what point is a contribution substantial enough to merit authorship?

Acknowledgments are even murkier. The summer student who ran a few statistical analyses didn’t seem, in my opinion, to have earned acknowledgment. I’m not entirely sure we used his statistics in the end. I think we re-ran everything before it was all said and done. But I guess he did some of the original analyses, and statistics is a big mysterious gray cloud to me, so maybe he had some other insights that were critical that I’m not aware of. The biggest issue with acknowledging him is that it was a challenge to track him down to get his permission to be listed!

That raises another point: there was a lot of work done before we started collecting data and was included in the manuscript. We tried a bunch of stuff that didn’t work at all before hitting on the thing that sort of worked (but not really). We did acknowledge the student who did all the stuff that didn’t work.

The other questionable acknowledgment was a professor who had moved on to another university. In fact, he was surprised he was being listed in the acknowledgments, so minor were his contributions to the original study design many years ago.

At what point is a contribution substantial enough to merit an acknowledgment?

A related question is how long do you continue to list someone as a co-author when they made a contribution that is something you now routinely use? The creators of the ERKO mouse got listed on every manuscript that used those mice. They’d send a few breeders to a lab, and all the papers that came out of that lab that used the ERKOs would list them as co-authors. Or suppose someone sent me a protocol for an assay that their lab had developed. Do I list that person as an author? That’s definitely an intellectual contribution. Would I continue to list that person(s) as authors on every paper where we used that assay?

As a junior faculty, I let myself be guided by my more experienced colleagues. I watch and I learn. As a result of my experiences this week, in the future I’ll be more careful who I list as an author. Of course I don’t want to fail to credit anyone, but co-authorship is like grade inflation. If it’s too freely given out it’s meaningless.

In retrospect, I’m inclined to think that anyone listed as an author should, in addition to having contributed to the research design or whatever other aspect of the project, have contributed to the publication or poster abstract. That doesn’t mean they need to have written a section of it, but they need to have read it and provided substantial feedback.

What is substantial feedback? I’ve gotten feedback from so-called authors that was embarrassingly minor. I’ve gotten feedback that was grammatical! I have a science writer for that, and she gets acknowledged for her assistance, not authorship. Substantial feedback requires careful reading and spending some time thinking about it. When I get grammatical corrections (which are often wrong), I know that the “author” rushed through the job.

Of course it would be best if I mentioned up front that was my expectation, and then there could be decisions or negotiations ahead of time and no surprises later.

There are probably exceptions.

When I’m grown up a midlevel professor with control over authorship on my own papers, my threshold for who gets co-author billing or acknowledged will be a bit higher than it seems to be for my colleagues.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.