Authorship can be tricky business. It is easy to establish agreed upon rules within, say, your lab or among frequent collaborators, but with large collaborations, multiple authorship traditions can cause tension. Different groups may not even agree on who should be included as an author (see Part 1), much less what order they should appear. The number of authors per paper has steadily increased over time reflecting broad cultural shifts in science. Research is now more collaborative, relying on different skill sets and expertise.
Average number of authors per publication in computer science, compiled by Sven Bittner
Within large collaborations are researchers who have contributed to differing degrees and author order needs to reflect these contribution levels. But this is where things get complicated. In different fields of study, or even among sub-disciplines, there are substantial differences in cultural norms for authorship. According to Tscharntke andcolleagues (2007), there are four main author order strategies:
- Sequence determines credit (SDC), where authors are ordered according to contribution.
- Equal contribution (ED), where authors are ordered alphabetically to give equal credit.
- First-last-author emphasis (FLAE), where last author is viewed as being very important to the work (e.g., lab head).
- Percent contribution indicated (PCI), where contributions are explicitly stated.
The main approaches in ecology and evolutionary biology are SDC and FLAE, though journals are increasingly requiring PCI, regardless of order scheme. This seems like a good compromise allowing the two main approaches (SDC & FLAE) to persist without confusing things. However, PCI only works if people read these statements. Grant applications and CVs seldom contain this information, and the perspective from these two cultures can bias career-defining decisions.
I work in a general biology department with cellular and molecular biologists who wholeheartedly follow FLAE. They may say things like “I need X papers with me as last author to get tenure”. As much as I probe them about how they determine author order in multi-lab collaborations, it is not clear to me how exactly they do this. I know that all the graduate students appear towards the front in order of contribution, but the supervisor professors appear in reverse order starting from the back. Obviously an outsider cannot disentangle the meaning of such ordering schemes without knowing who the supervisors were.
The problem is especially acute when we need to consider how much people have contributed in order to assign credit (see Part 3 on assigning credit). With SDC, you know that author #2 contributed more than the last author. With FLAE, you have no way of knowing this. Did the supervisor fully participate in carrying out the research and writing the paper? Or did they offer a few suggestions and funding? The are cases where the head of ridiculously large labs appears as last author on dozens of publications a year, and grumbling from those labs insinuate that the professor hasn’t even read half the papers.
Under SDC, this person should appear as the last author, reflecting this minimal contribution, but this shouldn’t give the person some sort of additional credit.
In my lab, I try to enforce a strict SDC policy, which is why I appear as second author on a number of multi-authored papers coming out of my lab. I do need to be clear about this when my record is being reviewed in my department, or else they will think some undergrad has a lab somewhere. Even with this policy, there are complexities, such as collaborations with other labs we follow FLAE, such as with many European colleagues. I have two views on this, which may be mutually exclusive. 1) There is a pragmatic win-win, where I get to be second author and some other lab head gets the last position and there is no debate about who deserves this last position. But 2) this enters morally ambiguous territory where we each may receive elevated credit depending on whether people look at the order through SDC or FLAE.
I guess the win-win isn’t so bad, but it would nice if there was an unambiguous criterion directing author order. And the only one that is truly unambiguous is SDC –with ED (alphabetical) for all the authors after the first couple in large collaborations. The recent paper by Adler and colleagues(2011) is a perfect example of how this should work.
Tscharntke T, Hochberg ME, Rand TA, Resh VH, Krauss J (2007) Author Sequence and Credit for Contributions in Multiauthored Publications. PLoS Biol 5(1): e18. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050018
Adler, P. B., E. W. Seabloom, E. T. Borer, H. Hillebrand, Y. Hautier, A. Hector, W. S. Harpole, L. R. O’Halloran, J. B. Grace, T. M. Anderson, J. D. Bakker, L. A. Biederman, C. S. Brown, Y. M. Buckley, L. B. Calabrese, C.-J. Chu, E. E. Cleland, S. L. Collins, K. L. Cottingham, M. J. Crawley, E. I. Damschen, K. F. Davies, N. M. DeCrappeo, P. A. Fay, J. Firn, P. Frater, E. I. Gasarch, D. S. Gruner, N. Hagenah, J. Hille Ris Lambers, H. Humphries, V. L. Jin, A. D. Kay, K. P. Kirkman, J. A. Klein, J. M. H. Knops, K. J. La Pierre, J. G. Lambrinos, W. Li, A. S. MacDougall, R. L. McCulley, B. A. Melbourne, C. E. Mitchell, J. L. Moore, J. W. Morgan, B. Mortensen, J. L. Orrock, S. M. Prober, D. A. Pyke, A. C. Risch, M. Schuetz, M. D. Smith, C. J. Stevens, L. L. Sullivan, G. Wang, P. D. Wragg, J. P. Wright, and L. H. Yang. 2011. Productivity Is a Poor Predictor of Plant Species Richness. Science 333:1750-1753.