Who are the paper’s authors?

Science should learn from the movies how to properly attribute credits.

Science should learn from the movies how to properly attribute credits.

Attribution of authorship in a scientific paper is a delicate task. In many fields, the author’s order in the byline symbolically indicates the role of each scientist in the work. But this is a poor job. Science should move to a system of explicit credits, where people were acknowledged for their real contribution. It would not be easier, but it would be fairer.

In many academic areas, mine included, scientific papers follow an unwritten rule in the bylines: the first author is who did most of the job, the last author is the senior scientist. The names in the middle are like my own middle name, nobody remembers.

It is not everywhere like this. I heard of other fields where it is common practice to have the senior scientist as the first author; and other fields where alphabetic order is the rule. (I am an embarrassed unworth first author in one of my papers because the senior scientist demanded a byline in alphabetic order.)

Anyway, what matters is that attributing authorship in a paper is a delicate political and diplomatic activity. (As a student, I almost caused a department fight because I accidentally deleted one name in a manuscript draft.) And the complications related to authorship attributions become everyday more involved, as people struggle to survive to funding pressures. (I had once to give way the first position because, for some crazy evaluation reason, a colleague needed his institution appearing as the first one.)

For each new paper, we have to carefully negotiate author’s list and order. Should a colleague who wrote a software or built an equipment years ago and that we are using now be included as author? And what about that other colleague with whom you had an early discussion on the topic, will he be signing it as well? Who is going to be corresponding author? Which one of the multiple affiliations of a former student will be credited first?

For me, this is the boring part of the scientific work, but it has to be done. Could it be different? Yes, it could.

In many aspects – authorship among them – science still could not move out of the early 20th century. Back then, it made sense to speak of the “author of a paper”. A paper was a piece of work that had a clear intellectual creator, quite in the same way as a fiction book has its author. But this romantic situation deeply changed. Today, the paper often represents the work of a collaborative team, where each member has different type and level of participation. We try to capture this new reality with ordered lists, but it is a poor job, especially when these lists stretch to hundreds authors, as it happens sometimes in particle physics and genomics.

Science should have learned from the movies. Since its origins, film industry masters how to publically attribute credits. At the end of every movie, hundreds of people, from the main star to the matte painter, from the director to the re-recording mixer, from the producer  to the best boy, all of them are acknowledged, with clear statement of hierarchy and roles.

We should be doing the same in our papers.

And this would not only be fair, but it could also help science. One of the most important roles in science is one that nobody dares to say the name: the producer.  The producer is responsible for gathering funds, allocating and administering resources. Without such professional, contemporary science would simply collapse.

Today, the producer is an ashamed professional. Usually, a senior scientist who spends the life complaining that he or she has so much bureaucracy to do that rests little time to look at scientific issues. It is a self-deceit: the role of these people is really to write proposals, to make politics at the committees, to fight for lab space, to guarantee the maximum of resources for their group. Not only there is no reason to be ashamed, but these professionals should be properly acknowledged.

I am not saying that to move from a system of simple authors lists to explicit credit attributions would make life easier: egos would be fighting for the director‘s role and in no time agencies would start asking how many papers you produced last year. But at least we would have a fairer system, rewarding everyone for their real contributions to the scientific enterprise.



Credits: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, www.phdcomics.com.

Categories: Science Policy, Scientific Culture

Tags: , , , , , , ,

14 replies

  1. You may have noted by amount of parentheses in the thext that I have many stories related to authorship to tell. Everyone after few years on road will have many. Let me know yours.

  2. PNAS does kind of what you are talking about. with a separate “author contributions” section. I guess this is a good idea.

  3. The underlying problem, as you said, is that we are fixated with one and only way of doing science, and much worse, the conviction that it is the best – or the least bad, which in practice means the same. For instance, in a regular proposal nobody gives a damn about the software you have written. The rationale is that, if it is useful, you will publish lots of papers with it.

    Another reflection is that, while the “producers” are crucial, it is such a shame to sacrifice often brilliant scientists for such mundane tasks… The problem is how cumbersome these tasks are.

    • Hi Sergio, I don’t see mundane tasks as a bad thing. They are part of the enterprise. What I think it is the most important is to recognize the skills and having each person working on that he or she does the best.

  4. Reblogged this on The Peers of Beinan series on Word Press and commented:
    Mario does a very nice job here conveying the complexities of authorship in the science world.

  5. I agree with a previous comment that some journals like in Nature group demand you writing contributions of each author. And there is no reason, why you could not do it in your papers for other journals. I saw paper in ACS journal with contributions list not demanded by journal. It is always better to start with small steps, if otherwise too difficult and later funding agencies may catch up.


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