Recently, Nature News brought an article about the issue of scientific authorships. A Twitter discussion was started by Dorothy Bishop, neuropsychologist at the University of Oxford, and it can be summarized as such: how can we know that all of the paper’s listed authors have actually read the paper, never mind providing any actual original research or ideas to it?
The issue of who becomes a co-author of an academic publication, and who does not, is a rather old one. Yet even these days many scientists are not always sure what kind of contribution justifies an authorship. As a PhD student, I had to include certain people as authors on my publications, who never pitched in even a single experiment or any specific idea to my research project. Their input was restricted to sharing a certain technology (which they did not develop themselves) and allowing me to use their specially equipped lab. Back then, I raised the issue with my supervisor, only to be made to understand that these people were strategically important for him. In fact, where I did my PhD, and at any other medical clinic of a German university, such “political” authorships are rather normal. I was once offered a gene expression plasmid which I thought I needed, by a group leader of my University Clinic, in exchange for an authorship. The plasmid was commercial, but that group leader received it gratis from someone else. Even back then, I considered his expectations ridiculous and was happy that I did not need that plasmid after all.
Authorships are generally the best way to say thanks to or to ingratiate oneself with important peers. Sometimes, even personal friends or family members in academia are invited as co-authors. Why not simply thanking all those people in acknowledgements? The answer is simple: an authorship on a publication is the best and hardest currency in the career bargain. Therefore sometimes, the most valuable initial authorship positions are granted strategically to those whose career needs them most, while the most senior last authorships are offered as tribute to the all-powerful institute director.
In fact, I was lucky enough to retain the first-authorship of my own research project (twice!), only because our head of institute did not insist on claiming the prestigious last authorship from my advisor. This last-authorship-grabbing is in fact not that uncommon, since senior professors often see every kind of research going on under their roof as their own, even if they have actually no clue what it is about. As paymasters of all research, also of the salaries of their subordinate group leaders, they believe the last authorship on every paper coming from their department is rightfully theirs.
Thus, it can easily happen that a group leader, who in this way lost the last authorship, grabs as compensation the first authorship away from his or her own PhD student. My own PhD supervisor tried exactly this after we received an invitation for a short review article. I was expected to write it, but I was specifically told I would not be the first author. My advisor would be it, simply because our professor wanted the ultimate authorship position. I refused, and the short review was thus never written.
The sequence of authorships is a major issue with every paper, not always does it reflect the extent of the actual contribution. A relatively novel development is the sharing of the first authorship. A friend of mine was made by his principal investigator (PI) to share his first authorship with two of his lab colleagues. Not because they contributed that significantly, but because they needed first author-papers for their careers, as the PI openly argued. Elsewhere, the unwritten tradition often is: after the PhD student or postdoc departs from a lab with a project unfinished, his or her first authorship on the later publication is shared with the project’s successor, regardless of the actual extent of individual contributions, as it happened to me and some former colleagues of mine.
Given the complicated political games played with the means of academic authorships by PIs, professors and senior postdoctoral scientists, it is no wonder that many researchers are confused. Which contributions do actually justify being named as an author, and when is it enough to thank people in acknowledgements?
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) provides a very useful definition on the “Role of Authors and Contributors”, which is also widely accepted by many journals beyond the scope of biomedicine. Four specific criteria must be fulfilled, and the key word is “AND” and not “OR”. It is not enough to satisfy one or some of them to qualify as an author:
Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
Final approval of the version to be published; AND
Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.
Thus, critical manuscript reading alone (whatever this sometimes may be) is not enough to become its author. Offering lab space or sharing reagents also does not qualify you to be an author (except, when your reagents are non-commercial AND unpublished). Paying your researchers’ salaries does not give you some kind of proprietor’s right to an automatic authorship, and certainly not for the prestigious ultimate one. The acknowledgement section is reserved for exactly such cases.
I myself experienced several times, as PhD student and postdoc, that certain people, who never contributed a tiniest bit of research data or even any specific ideas, were granted authorships on my publications for purely “political” reasons. These people were important to my then-supervisor, career-wise.
I wonder how many of you have been forced to include as authors your superiors, career-minded colleagues or collaborators, whose scientific contribution to your publication was nil or negligible.
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