Who Should Be An Author?

Jun 06 2009 Published by under Conduct of Science, Science Publication

Anybody who wants to discuss the always fascinating--and sometimes contentious--topics of appropriate authorship of scientific publications, head on over to Blue Lab Coats and join the conversation about these scenarios:

Scenario #1
Let's say that you have 3 employees- doesn't matter if they are students, postdocs, techs or whatever, working on a single project, basically using the same technique to get at the same question. (And we almost certainly discuss whether this is a great strategy for giving people projects to begin with, and for the record I don't do this in my lab...but that is not the question right now.) Scientist A and Scientist B do lots of experiments, but the data is never great enough to appear in print. Scientist C has awesome hands, and gets the thing to work- and work beyond your wildest imagination. Do you include all of them on the paper that eventually makes its way out of the lab on this work, or not? Does it matter if they are in the lab concurrently or not?
Now let's imagine that Scientist B, despite the fact that his/her experiments were a total bust, was letting Scientist C look over his/her notebook- and they were spending a lot of time troubleshooting together over beers on Friday afternoon-.... does that change your opinion of who should be on the paper...?
Scenario #2
We are going to build on scenario #1 up there for this. For your own lab members you decide - in the case where Scientist C was wildly successful without input from Scientist B (i.e. both A and B performed failed experiments)- you decide that only Scientist C should be on the paper. But you've got a collaborator who has to make similar sorts of decisions to determine who will be authors on a collaborative paper... from both of your labs. Your collaborator has the philosophy that the lab is a team, and that no matter whether or not particular individuals produced actual data that appears in the paper....
I think you see where I am going here- how do you reconcile who goes on the paper from each lab. Does each PI decide independently who from their labs should be included, or do the PIs have to have some sort of agreement about what constitutes enough of a contribution to be included as an author?

5 responses so far

  • Danny O'Rerio says:

    Authorship is also responsibility. If someone can point to something in the paper and say that he/she is primarily responsible for that, then they are an author. If they can't point to anything, then they are not an author.
    I have collaborated with quite a few people, and it typically goes something like this:
    If they are putting together the paper, they ask me who from my lab should be author, and I tell them (based on my rules above). They usually stick the names in the author list where they see fit, and then ask me whether that is OK. Almost always it is. Or we have some minor discussion about it that is resolved quickly because it basically comes down to one of us not realizing the full extent of another lab member's contribution.
    If I am putting together the paper, I ask the collaborator who from their lab should be author. If I don't know the other PI very well or haven't published with them before, I might briefly mention my criteria for authorship or ask for specific names, like "Hey, I need to know who in your lab to put on this paper. I know so-and-so did the westerns, so obviously she's included. But who is responsible for that clone we used for those experiments in figures 2 and 3?" The other PI tells me names, and we work out an agreement on the author order. By asking for specific names for specific results, I also usually find out exactly who contributed what from the other lab, which makes author order easier. Regardless, if another PI tells me someone from their lab deserves authorship, I generally include them, no questions asked, even if I am skeptical about the nature of the contribution. Different people have different criteria, and there's no point destroying a good collaborative relationship over it. But whenever possible, I also happily comply with publisher requests asking us to describe specific author contributions, particularly for collaborative work. Not just to keep authorship under control, but because readers will want to know who to ask about certain experiments or reagents.

  • ABM says:

    Scenario #1: traditionally, Scientist C would be acknowledged for "useful discussions", would s/he not?
    Scenario #2: I would say the collaborator who claims everyone should be on every paper is overreaching. I don't make author-level contributions to every paper my lab produces, no matter how much of a "team" we are.

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    Meh, if they pushed the work forward but didnt get the money shot they deserve near back of list authorship. At least they helped Scientist C know what NOT to do. As for the other lab, if there are inconsistencies in authorship practices, discuss them and figure it out.
    But wait:
    What about Scenario #3 where you collaborate with another lab who gives you provocative data that help both of you to get an R21 that you basically split down the middle. Then your graduate student goes to their lab for a postdoc (ivy league starts with an H). But when you decide to independently reproduce their data for the paper, you cant. They get all pissy over it and argue even though THEY cant reproduce it. Then your graduate student who is now their postdoc, decides for political expediency on his final paper from your lab, that he wants all of them on the paper that doesnt even include any of their data because it was entirely spurious? They agree with him of course and since they gave him some feedback on the writing of the paper, feel they deserve authorship.
    What would you do? I know what I did!
    Doc F.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The notion that middle authors dilute the contribution of first authors is total nonsense so who gives a hoot how many there are? Put everybody on there that contributed. Yes, even if their contribution was identifying all of the dead ends...

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