Who Gets the Credit?

Scientific papers nowadays are written more on computers than with ink and paper, but no matter how you write a paper it is important to distinguish who gets credit for what. (Image credit: Petar Milošević, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

A huge component of science is the execution of successful experiments and then writing about those experiments. Consequently, a lot of weight is put on who did what, and what kind of credit people deserve for what they do. This can result in some arguments about how much so and so did for the project, and why they deserve authorship credit. In this article, I want to briefly cover some authorship issues and what kind of impact authorship can have on a scientist’s career.

Trends in Authorship

In scientific papers the first author is seen as the one who did most of the work, whether that be the writing of the paper, data collection, analysis, or conception of the project itself. Not surprisingly, the first author position is seen as the most prestigious, especially when most papers with multiple authors are cited as “first author et al.”, and the only name people will see is the name of that illustrious first author. The last author on a paper is usually the one who is running the lab where the experiment was conducted, and this position is often taken by the supervisor of the first author. The last author is also a prestigious position, but if there are three or more authors on a paper the people who fall into the middle may be seen as insignificant relative to the first or last author.

Some Issues

Not too long ago it wasn’t uncommon to see papers with a single author on it. Sure, the author may have written an opinion piece or a synthesis of the literature up to that point, but they may have also been the sole author on a paper that summarized the results of an experiment. This means that the author came up with the idea (alone), collected all of the data (alone), analyzed the data (alone), and wrote the paper (once again, alone). While I am sure this did happen, in reality it is more likely that there were people who were doing work on the experiment and weren’t getting credit for their contributions.

Now there are several reasons why people may have not gotten credit. First and foremost, having a terrible supervisor that refuses to give credit to any of the people working under them is a surefire way to have problems with getting authorship on a paper. Another reason, especially in the past (though I am not so naïve as to think that it doesn’t happen now), is that a male scientist would refuse to credit or acknowledge the work of their female colleagues or employees. There were even papers that had all-male authors, but the acknowledgments section would list several women and thank them for data collection, analysis, editing, and plenty of other things that I would argue qualify someone for authorship credit.

I wasn’t a researcher back in those days, but my impression of how things went then was undergraduates working in the lab on an experiment would be seen as nothing more than laborers. Sure, they would get reimbursed for their work (either by getting credit towards their degree or money for the time spent on the experiment) but they weren’t seen as peers and were considered as having a lower status than the “actual scientists”.

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I think I can speak for many other scientists when I say that I have spent more than a little time sitting in front of my laptop looking just like this, trying to pull that elusive “perfect sentence” out of the ether. (Image credit: Peter Alfred Hess, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why It Matters

“Publish or perish” is a phrase that most people have probably heard when it comes to professional academics, and there is a certain truth to it. Scientists that publish a lot of papers tend to be viewed as more successful than those who publish fewer papers, and having a first author publication in a top-tier journal is incredibly important in the early stages of a young scientist’s career. These publications are used as currency in the bureaucratic side of academia, and the more you have the better your chances for employment in the future.

How Do We Define Authorship?

During her recent visit to the University of Arkansas, Dr. Shannon McCauley led a workshop focusing on some issues in authorship, and what we as scientists can do to improve in the future. One thing that came up during the workshop was “what defines an author?” This is a question that has been with me since I started my career in academia, and it is something that I don’t think I have the answer to yet. There are so many unique circumstances surrounding every study that may have an impact on who gets credit for what, and I think that it will be all but impossible to come up with a universal criteria for authorship. What we CAN do; however, is make sure to treat anyone involved in a particular study with respect. Be open about any expectations surrounding authorship from the get go, so as to avoid conflicts later on. As long as we start with these few criteria, I think that we as scientists can be sure that we are giving credit to those who deserve it.

We’ll be bringing you our full interview with Dr. McCauley in the near future.

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