Showing posts with label authorship. Show all posts
Showing posts with label authorship. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

More authors, more joy?

It seems that ecologists have been complaining that no one writes single author manuscripts anymore since at least the 1960s. de Solla Price predicted in 1963:
"…the proportion of multi-author papers has accelerated steadily and powerfully, and it is now so large that if it continues at the present rate, by 1980 the single-author paper will be extinct”
Fortunately, an interesting new editorial in the Journal of Applied Ecology has the data (from their archives of published and submitted papers) to evaluate to ask whether this disastrous outcome has actually occurred.

It turns out that Price was wrong about single-author extinction, although he hadn't misread the trends. Since the 1970s, the proportion of single-authored papers at the journal have declined to less than 4% and the mean number of authors has risen to more than 5 (Figure 1).

Fig 1. 
It's also notable that single-authored papers are cited significantly less often and are 2.5x less likely to be accepted (!). (If that statistic doesn't make you want to gather some coauthors, nothing will). These trends agree with others reported in the literature.

The authors hypothesize that a number of factors drive this result. Ecology has gotten 'bigger' in many ways - analyses are less likely to focus on single populations or species and more likely to be replicated through space and or time. This increased breadth requires more students or assistants to aid with experimental or field work, or collaborations with other labs to bring such data together. Similarly, ecological data collection and analyses often require multiple types of specialized knowledge, whether statistical, mathematical, technological, or systems-based. And by relying on multiple researchers to play specialized roles, the overall quality of a manuscript might be higher (as compared to a jack-of-all trades). The authors also suggest that factors including the growing number of ecologists, the more international scope of many research activities, and more democratic approaches to authorship have increased the mean number of co-authors.

What makes these results particularly interesting is that I think there is still something of a cachet for the sole-authored paper. The conceit is that writing a sole authored paper means that you have a fully realized research plan, and you're accomplished enough to bring it to fruition by yourself. But these stats at least seem to suggest that you're better off with a few friends :)

Barlow, Jos, Stephens, Philip A., Bode, Michael, Cadotte, Marc W., Lucas, Kirsty, Newton, Erika, Nuñez, Martin A., Pettorelli, Nathalie. On the extinction of the single-authored paper: The causes and consequences of increasingly collaborative applied ecological research. J Appl Ecol. 55(1): 1365-2664.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Navigating the complexities of authorship: Part 2 -author order

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:

  1.        Sequence determines credit (SDC), where authors are ordered according to contribution.
  2.        Equal contribution (ED), where authors are ordered alphabetically to give equal credit.
  3.        First-last-author emphasis (FLAE), where last author is viewed as being very important to the work (e.g., lab head).
  4.        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.


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.

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

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Navigating the complexities of authorship: Part 1 –inclusion

One of the highlights of grad school is publishing your very first papers in peer-reviewed journals. I can still remember the feeling of seeing my first paper appear in print (yes on paper and not a pdf). But what this novice scientist should not be fretting over is which colleagues should be included as authors and whether they are breaking any norms. The two things that should be avoided are including as authors, those that did not substantially contribute to the work, and excluding those that deserve authorship. There have been controversial instances where breaking these authorship rules caused uncomfortable situations. None of us would want someone writing a letter to a journal arguing that they deserved authorship. Nor is it comfortable to see someone squirming out of authorship, arguing they had minimal involvement when an accusation of fraud has been levelled against a paper. How to determine who should be an author can be difficult.

Even though I spell out my own rules below, it is important to be flexible and to understand that different types of papers and differing situations can have an impact on this decision. That said, you do not want to be arbitrary in this decision. For example, if two people contribute similar amounts to a paper, you do not want to include only one because you personally dislike the other. You should have a benchmark for inclusion that can be defended. The cartoon above highlights the complexity and arbitrariness of authorship –and the perception that there are many instances of less than meritorious inclusion.

Journals do have their own guidelines, and many now require statements about contributions, but even these can be vague, still making it difficult to assess how much individuals actually contributed. When I discuss issues of authorship with my own students, I usually reiterate the criteria from Weltzin et al. (2006). I use four criteria to evaluate contribution:
1)   Origination of the idea for the study. This would include the motivation for the study, developing the hypotheses and coming up with a plan to test hypotheses.
2)   Running the experiment or data collection. This is where the blood, sweat and tears come in.
3)   Analyzing the data. Basically moving from a database to results, including deciding on the best analyses, programming (or using software) and dealing with inevitable complexities, issues and problems.
4)   Writing the paper. Putting everything together can sometimes be the most difficult and external motivation can be important.

My basic requirements for authorship are that one of these steps was not possible without a key person, or else there was a person who significantly contributed to more than one of these. Such requirements mean that undergraduates assisting with data collection do not meet the threshold for authorship. Obviously these are idealized and different types of studies (e.g., theory or methodological papers) do not necessarily have all these activities. Regardless, authors must have contributed in a meaningful way to the production of this research and should be able to defend it. All authors need to sign off on the final product.

While this system is idealized, there are still complexities making authorship decisions difficult or uncomfortable. Here are three obvious ones –but there are others.

Data sharing
Large, synthetic analyses require multiple datasets and some authors are loath to share their hard work without credit. This is understandable, as a particular dataset could be the product of years of work. But when is inclusion for authorship appropriate? It is certainly appropriate to offer authorship if the questions being asked in the synthesis overlap strongly with planned analyses for the dataset. Both the data owner and the synthesis architect have a mutual interest in fostering collaboration. In this case every effort should be made to include the data owner in the analyses and writing of the manuscript.

When is it not appropriate to include data owners as authors? First and foremost, if the data is publically available, then it is there for further independent investigation. No one would offer authorship to each originator of a gene sequence in Genbank. Secondly, if it is a dataset that has already been used in many publications and has fulfilled its intended goals, then it should be made available without authorship strings. I’ve personally seen scientists reserve the right of authorship for the use of datasets that are both publically available and have satisfied the intended purpose long ago.

The basic rule of thumb should be that if the dataset is recent and still being analyzed, and if the owner has an interest in examining similar questions, then authorship should be offered –with the caveat that additional work is required, beyond simply supplying the data.

Idea ontogeny
I thought about labeling this section ‘idea stealing’ but thought that wasn’t quite right. An idea is a complex entity. It lives, dies and morphs. It is fully conceivable to listen to a news story about agricultural subsidies, which somehow spurs an idea about ecosystem dynamics. We all have conversations with colleagues and go to talks, and these interactions can morph into new scientific ideas, even subconsciously. We need to be careful and acknowledge how much an idea came from a direct conservation with another scientist. Obviously if a scientist says “you should do this experiment…”,  then you need to acknowledge them and perhaps turn your idea into a collaboration.

Now here is the tricky one. Often people are authors because they control the purse strings. Yes, a PI has done an excellent job of securing funding, and should be acknowledged for this. If the study is a part of a funded project, where the PI developed the original idea, then the PI fully deserves to be included. However, if the specific study is independent from the funded project in terms of ideas and work plan, but uses funding from this project, then this contribution belongs in the acknowledgements and does not deserve authorship. There are cases where the PI of an extremely large lab gets dozens of papers a year, always appearing last in the list of authors (see part 2 on author order -forthcoming), and it is legitimate to view their contributions skeptically. Their relationship to many of the papers is likely financial and they probably couldn’t defend the science. I had a non-ecologist colleague ask me if it was still the case that graduate students in ecology produce papers without their advisors, to which I said yes (Caroline has several papers without me as an author).

Clearly there are cultural differences among sub disciplines. However, I do feel that authorship norms need to be robust and enforced. Cheaters (those gratuitously appearing on numerous papers –see part 3 on assigning credit; also forthcoming) reap the rewards and benefits of authorship, with little cost. It is disingenuous to list authors that have not have a substantial input into the publication, and the lead author is responsible for the accuracy of authorship. The easiest way to ensure that authors are really authors is to make an effort to include them in various aspects of the paper. For example, give them every opportunity to provide feedback –send them the first results and early drafts, have Skype for phone meetings with them to get their input and incorporate that input. Ultimately, we all should walk away from a collaboration feeling like we have contributed and made the paper better, and we should be proud to talk about it to other colleagues.

Many of these ideas were directly informed by this great paper by Weltzin and colleagues (2006):

Weltzin, J. F., Belote, R. T., Williams, L. T., Keller, J. K. & Engel, E. C. (2006) Authorship in ecology: attribution, accountability, and responsibility. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 4, 435-441.