Credit where it’s due?

By Siouxsie Wiles 18/11/2012 4

H/T to @MyBioTechniques for pointing me to a Chronicle article by Chris Woolston ‘When a mentor becomes a thief‘, which recounts a number of cases of junior scientists finding themselves left out of authorship when papers about their work are published. The peer reviewed publication is the currency of science and as a result all sorts of shenanigans go on. When I looked at the article again, I see it’s almost 10 years old. So has anything changed?

I’m not sure it has. This is in spite of many journals now including a section where each author’s contribution is listed. In my time in science I’ve been left off a couple of paper’s that I contributed data to, had a leading group not cite my work so they could get their paper into a higher impact journal by claiming novelty, and a number of times been shafted with my position on the list of authors not reflecting my contribution. I’ve also had a number of authors foisted on me for ‘political’ reasons.

My favourite line in Chris’ article is:

“Before a single beaker gets rinsed, the question of authorship has to be laid on the table”

This must be one of the most important pieces of advice for a scientist to follow. I have to admit that I almost never do this. Maybe this is why I’ve been shafted so many times. When I start out on a piece of research, I’m not thinking about the papers but the science being addressed. It seems both presumptive and rude to be talking about papers at that early stage!

So how do others do it? I’d be really interested to hear what you think!

4 Responses to “Credit where it’s due?”

  • Talking authorship prior to “rinsing beakers” seems like a horribly stilted way to do science. I think we’ve all been dropped from papers, merely acknowledged for tonnes of work, pushed to middle author from rightful (possibly joint) first/last positions and more.

    The trouble with Science is that it is done by fallible people.

    Personally, if I get dicked on authorship I just don’t work with that group again. Life is far too short to work with bastards. The folk that choose to operate like that suffer in the long run (especially if you make sure to trash them at every opportunity).

  • For what’s worth, it seems to be common advice offered in books on writing science (not popular science, research papers). I happened to look this up a while back when the topic arose elsewhere on-line with a view to writing a blog about it – obviously that never happened!!

    I think the point at hand isn’t so much about collaborators so much as within a research group – ? (Issues with collaborators certainly can be an issue, too; I’m taking my lead from the reference to ‘mentor’ in the title of the linked article.) PIs ought to explain to be people in their group what their general line on authorship is early on so that group members don’t develop inappropriate “entitlements” in their minds.

    How you draw the line, though, is a question. My own preference is to err on the side of being inclusive, provided you can point to a section/etc of the paper and identify that as the person’s contribution.

  • Collaboration is about trust. At the end it depends pretty much on how the project was designed, in other words, whether you are since the very begining or you just jump in to fill in an specific gap. This will certainly affect your position in the author list. Talking about the same lab, I believe it depends on the overall lab atmosphere. Either your are building up a team and your are a true mentor, or the PI just focuses on his/her career (who gets the senior position). I try to follow the former and I always identify at the begining who is the leading worker on the project. He/she will seek collaboration within the group and then these people will be also listed as authors.

    • Hi everyone

      Thanks for commenting. Its interesting to hear everyone’s experiences. There was a bit of discussion on Twitter about whether there should be standards for authorship and David Winter (@TheAtavism) pointed to a couple of Nature articles on the topic. In this one Amber Dance quotes someone as saying to get authorship you have to have been part of the creative process. If you were just carrying out a protocol then that wasn’t enough. I guess this is followed by those labs that leave technicians off papers. I wholeheartedly disagree with this. If data you generated went into the paper then I think you should be an author. And in this post, Sebastian Frische argues for an online ‘contribution’ database that would look much like the credits of a film. Nice idea!

      What’s clear though is that we are a long way from having every scientist singing from the same page :(

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