Thought of the Day

May 04 2013 Published by under Science Publication, Scientific Publication

Listed-third author gets to refer to it as a second-author-paper when the first two are co-equal first authors, right?

21 responses so far

  • toto@club-med.so says:

    Wait. People care about the difference between second and third author?

  • WS says:

    If you are not first author or last author (as PI), everything else is minor author, and nobody cares if you are second or ninth on the list.

  • If you are not first author or last author (as PI), everything else is minor author, and nobody cares if you are second or ninth on the list.

    This is not true. At least in the biosciences, second-listed and second-to-last-listed authors are considered to have made more substantial contributions than deeper-listed authors.

    And to answer SploogeMonkey's stupid question: no. In a golf tournament, if there are two golfers tied for second place, the next-best finished fourth, not third.

  • Alex says:

    What a middle-author paper means for your career depends on how you describe and pitch your background. Generally, second authors made some sort of substantial, useful contribution, at least in the fields I'm familiar with. And second-to-last, as CPP said, often goes to the leader of a collaborating group.

    I once met somebody who had an interesting story to tell about his large number of third author papers: He knew some experimental technique really well. Besides his primary project, he would often perform his technique in support of other people's projects. Besides the obvious benefit of a longer CV (third author might not count for much, but a longer CV is still better than a shorter one), he got to learn a little bit about a lot of different projects. The first and second authors on those papers did the lion's share of work on conceiving and carrying out the overall project, but this serial third author contributed expertise to the particular part of the project that required his technique, and learned something in the process.

    Nobody will get hired solely based on a string of third author papers, but what you've learned from those projects might very well take you somewhere in a career.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Middle authorships can also combine *with first authorships* within a particular research direction in the lab to bolster the claim that you were the instrumental glue for all of that (related) work.

  • miko says:

    In all ranked sports, a tie at any level means you skip a rank for the next one down, so it's third author.

    All authorship matters... first author or last author is of course how you are primarily judged, but minor authorship on many papers from your lab (as a PD or student) underscores that you may be an important component of the big picture. Being only ever first (or last) might make you look independent but also might make you look uncollaborative or, more likely, that no one likes you.

  • A. Tasso says:

    What does it matter? It's not like someone is looking at your CV and saying "hmmm, two 1st-author papers that I assign a weight of 1.0, three 2nd-author papers that I assign a weight of 0.7, and nine 3rd-author papers that I assign a weight of 0.3. That makes 2*1 + 3*0.7 + 9*0.3 = 6.8." And they're going to pass you over in favor of someone with a 7.9?

  • The publication doesn't even count anymore unless you're a correspondent author, if you're shooting for your own funding. (It does if you just want a damn job in industry, so the PhD and Master's candidates that just want to go work for Merck can relax.) The author order system of "credit" was always flawed.

  • GMP says:

    I do theory/computation and often work with two experimental collaborators; all three groups have differing and complementary expertise, and together we have had some very high impact publications. For each one of our joint papers each one of us does a ton of work and so do our students and postdocs. However, due to issues of fame and seniority and tradition and the fact that underneath it all most people think experiment is more worthy than theory (even though you can't get a high profile pub without integrated theory), I am always listed third from the back and my students and postdocs are at best third from the front.

    I know that when people see the order of authors they think I and my folks are just some random middle authors. There is nothing I can do about people's perceptions. What I can do is make sure that all my letters of recommendation explicitly say that my student or postdoc did all the theory on that paper, and that others are experimentalists, so who did what is unambiguous.

  • miko says:

    GMP, if that is normal in your field, then the people in your field know it. That's why review is done by peers.

  • GMP says:

    Miko, my understanding is that the question here is not peer review, but what happens once the paper is out and all sorts of different people who may be only marginally related to your field and who know one or none of the PI's, such as various recruitment and promotion committees, get to make judgments about contributions and possibly careers of different individuals based on authorship order on a journal paper...

  • yellowfish says:

    A. Tasso- actually, my department does almost exactly that as a part our our annual performance reviews (as an alternative to looking at change in h-index).

  • TheGrinch says:

    So is there a thumb rule that says x% of one's total papers should be in the first/last authored position, and that this x changes with one's career stage?

  • Sven D. says:

    There is a thumb role if you wanna be professor for example. Then some universities have rules how many first and last authorship you must have.

  • odyssey says:

    So is there a thumb rule that says x% of one's total papers should be in the first/last authored position, and that this x changes with one's career stage?

    If you're hoping to head into academia in the biomed sciences, then preferably (there is some wiggle room):

    As a trainee #first authorships >> #all other authorships.

    As a PI #last authorships >> #all other authorships.

  • drugmonkey says:

    and what about miko's point that a lack of middle authorships suggests you are a jerk, Odyssey? (or, probably more cuttingly, nobody finds any use in what you do?)

  • AD says:

    "As a trainee #first authorships >> #all other authorships."

    I think that needs to be modified as --> As a trainee #first authorships >> #all other authorships except last authorships.

    I think last authorships as a trainee are a great indicator of initiative and in my mind score better than first authorships.

  • Odyssey says:

    DM:
    I didn't say no middle authorships.

    AD:
    Only if it's last AND corresponding author.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Last authorships as trainee are assumed to be some other convention, not as true senior authorships.

  • AD says:

    Odyssey - Right, I meant last+corresponding authorship although I should have said second last authorship because I have never seen a trainee as a corresponding author AND last author. Usually in such cases the PI is last+corresponding and the trainee is second last+corresponding.

    DM - I suppose second last+corresponding are seen as senior authorships though? I have seen a few cases like that. In fact, my next paper due to be submitted for review soon will most likely have me as a second last+corresponding author while my PI will be last+corresponding author.

  • drugmonkey says:

    To be slightly more serious....

    My view is that trainees *can* benefit from penultimate and/or last author position in some situations. Yes, it should probably be bolstered with a corresponding authorship as well. But....this works only if there is an identifiable subdomain within the laboratory for which the trainee in question has published as first author. Preferably more than once and certainly more than any other person contemporaneously in the lab.

    And the lab head better be willing to testify to this in the job application recommendation letters.

    If it is just some random pub then I suspect it will not help the trainee much and s/he is better off with another first authorship.

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