Monday, October 08, 2007

Authors - alphabetical vs. by contribution

After my first post on Authors and who goes on papers I have received quite a few emails from people and had some interesting discussions with some of my colleagues. It seems that everyone has a good story on this topic. Something that I've noticed can give rise to some heated discussions is whether authors should be listed alphabetically or according to how much they have contributed, i.e. the first author did most. From what I've gathered so far the alphabetical system seems to be a chemistry thing. When I mention this concept to people in biology/biochemistry they are outraged. In their area you really need to be the first or second author for the paper to carry any serious weight on your publication list. After thinking a bit about all this I have reached two conclusions that may or may not be right:
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(1) The alphabetical system only benefits the supervisor. The supervisor no longer has to have any troublesome discussions about who did what.
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(2) The contribution system also benefits the people that actually did the work. In many academic institutions and companies they look for first authorship's on papers. This is the only way they can determine if people did any meaningful science. From third author and down they could have ended up on the paper for close to nothing.
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And then there are the supervisors that mix things up:
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(1) Many supervisors will always put themselves last and everyone else by alphabet?
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(2) Others will always put themselves first and everyone else alphabetical (or by contribution). I suspect they do this so that the paper will be referred to as "supervisors name" et al. rather than "students name" et al.
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I have been through two alphabetical places and four by contribution places and I have reached the conclusion that if you want your name at pole position (at the alphabetical places) you just have to do all the work yourself. And finally just in case anyone thinks that I'm moaning and I'm unhappy about how things have panned out for me - I'm not - I just thought the topic was interesting. D!

9 comments:

Greg the Chemist said...

I always list my student authors based on their contributions. For my name I will often put it first if I am the one who has done 100% of the writing of the paper. Otherwise, my name will be last.

milkshake said...

alphabetical order also benefits people named Aaronson.

Daniel Sejer said...

Greg brings up a good point. Who writes the paper and where on the author list does that person go? In most of the labs I've worked in the policy has been that the person that did most work has to write the paper. They should be most familiar with the material and they are the first author of the paper. Obviously, when you are in the start of your career the person writing the paper wil need a lot of help from the supervisor to get it right. This is also the way I would do it if I was running a group, although I would imagine that sometimes it would be tempting to just write it for them as this would be much faster. I think that the alphabetical method probably discourages students from writing the paper themselves since it won't have any consequences for the order of authors. D!

Daniel Sejer said...

Milkshake, isn't it interesting how people named Aaronson seem to be all for the alphabetical method? Not that it really matters. Aaaronson probably just cleaned the floors anyway. D!

Anonymous said...

How do you gauge who makes the most important contribution to a piece of work? E.g. Is it the person who discovers something with a flash of inspiration, or the person who then handle turns, generates all the examples and writes the paper?

For me alphabetical is the only way. Advisors (i.e. those who do no ne of the prac work) get the *s. If the student/pdra writes the paper as well I would argue the advisor should not get a *! If people have made no meaningful contribution then they should not be an author even if they did a bit on the side.

Daniel Sejer said...

Having first (or second) authorship is of great importance to young peoples careers. The people having brilliant flashes of inspiration are usually the supervisors and they go on all the papers anyway, get the * and everyone realises that this is a result coming from their lab (and likely to be based on their ideas). Moreover, in my experience >80% of these great ideas don’t work in the lab so I don’t believe that it should give one first authorship. It’s not fun turning handles and pressing buttons that produces black unpublishable goo. To me contribution is mainly based on non-trivial lab work and writing of papers and I believe that the person who did the bulk of the lab work should write the paper. That said every piece of research is different and things aren’t always simple but in my experience most of the time there is no doubt about who did most of the lab work etc. In reality all this boils down to the journals not making all this more transparent. I’ll do my next post on PLoS (Public Library of Science: http://www.plos.org). These guys have solved the whole authorship/contribution thing in a great way making it perfectly clear who did what. D!

taitauwai said...

Over here, boss will be #1 and followed by me, the postgrad that actually do the work and after that is my 2nd boss. However, I hate it when we have to put in another postgrad name when she didn't do anything but just becoz boss symphathize her. Need your opinion D, what's the best way to say no?

Daniel Sejer said...

Taitauwai, it's not your job to say no. That job should be left to your boss. Academics often have terrible leadership and adminstrative skills. Many wouldn't last 5 minutes in an industrial setting. I guess that academics primarily get employed based on their research track record. Fortunately, good teaching skills are playing an increasingly important role in getting academic jobs. I'm sure it's only a question of time before more general leadership skills will also become part of the job description. D!

taitauwai said...

But D, she didn't contribute to anything at all! Why must she deserve a place on the paper? ... Can you really put a name on the paper because you symphathize with her?