Monday, November 18, 2013


I've been asked by a colleague to write a post about coauthorship.  This topic comes up often in courses on scientific ethics and responsible conduct of research.  Like many of these things, my sense is that good practice prevails in the large majority of circumstances, though not 100% of the time.  I think my views on this are in line with the mainstream, at least in condensed matter physics.  First, to be a coauthor, a person has to have made a real intellectual contribution to the work, somewhere in the planning, execution, analysis, and/or writeup stages.  Simply paying for a person's time, some supplies, or lending a left-handed widget does not alone entitle someone to coauthorship.   It's best to have straightforward, direct conversations with potential coauthors early on, before the paper is written, to make sure that they understand this.  A couple of times I've turned down offers of coauthorship b/c I felt like I didn't really contribute to the paper; once, for example, one of my students did some lithography for a colleague as a favor, while offering advice on sample design.  She rightfully was a coauthor, but I hadn't really done anything beyond say that this was fine with me.

The challenge is, the current culture of h indices and citation metrics rewards coauthorship.  People coming out of large research groups with many-person collaborative projects can end up looking fantastic in some of these metrics, a bias exacerbated if coauthorships are distributed lightly.  Research cultures that have very hierarchical structures can also lead to "courtesy" coauthorships (Does the Big Professor or Group Leader who runs a whole institute or laboratory automatically end up on all the important papers that come out of there, even if they are extremely detached from the work?  I hope not.).

Coauthorship entails responsibilities, and this is where things can get ethically tricky.  As a coauthor, minimally you should contribute to the writing of the manuscript (even if that means reading a draft and offering substantive comments) and actually understand the research.   Just understanding your own little piece and having no clue about the rest is not acceptable.  At the same time, it's not really fair to expect, e.g., the MBE materials grower to know in detail some low-T, rf experimental technique tidbit, but s/he should at least understand the concepts.  A coauthor should know enough to ask salient questions during the analysis and writeup.   

Note that all of this gets rather murky when dealing with very large, collaborative projects (e.g., particle physics).  When CERN collaborations produce a paper with 850 coauthors, do I think that each of them really read the manuscript in detail?  No, but they have a representative system with internal committees, etc. for internal review and deciding authorship, and the ones I talk to are aware of the challenges that this represents.

Some topics lend themselves more to a back-an-forth in the comments, and this may be one.  I'm happy to try to answer questions on this.


Don Monroe said...

Some journals include a list of contributions of the various authors along with the competing interests statement. I snagged this one from the current Nature:

Experiments were designed and the data were interpreted by Y.M. and E.H.; all experiments except CRAC analysis were performed by Y.M.; CRAC experiments and data analyses were performed by S.G. in collaboration with D.T.; M.T. constructed rea1 mutants and performed the in vitro release assay of rea1 mutants, the ctNug2 complementation assay and the immunodepletion assay; R.-G.M. developed the methods of the in vitro assay for nucleotide binding and GTPase activity measurement; the manuscript was written by Y.M. and E.H.; all authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

This should be standard practice.

Douglas Natelson said...

Hi Don - Absolutely, though again if there were 500 coauthors, this could get tricky to implement. I'll admit, I'd be happier if giant collaborations listed authorship by team rather than by individual. Yes, the person who tested the fiber optic connections to the photomultipliers in, e.g., a xenon dark matter detection experiment played an essential role, in that the detector had to work, did that person really have a direct intellectual contribution to some particular paper that uses that detector? It seems clear that individual authorship/citation metrics just do not fit well with large scale collaborations without some adjustments.

tryzub said...

What if someone performed a measurement of samples and gave back the results without providing consistent explanations so the sample owner should go deep on his/her own, should the operator be included in the list of coauthors?

So the person contributed not intellectually, but with time and efforts.

Douglas Natelson said...

tryzub, I think that would depend on the circumstances. For instance, in chemistry circles it's common to get mass spectroscopy performed on samples on a fee-for-service basis; a technician would do measurements and send back a mass spectrum. Generally these folks are not co-authors, but are acknowledged. If the person performed a measurement as part of a real collaboration, and there was back-and-forth discussion about the explanation of the data, then I would think authorship would be appropriate, presuming that the data were actually used in the resulting paper.

Angry said...

I've similarly turned down offers of coauthorship. Generally this issue is one of personal integrity/style/etc. However, it seems to consistently pop-up as an issue with conference proceedings. I feel the minimum duty is to read the manuscript before submission for anything blatantly wrong or offensive (as in not citing seminal work). But in a number of cases, I've seen truly awful writing in such proceedings and one looks at the ostensible author list and finds otherwise respectable (neh, esteemed!) persons.

When these trash-worthy 'papers' get published, the publication and many of its authors (I don't fault the young authors not likely to challenge established faculty) get downgraded a notch in my book.

Anonymous said...

i came to a new job with an unfinished paper. The old boss has been taking a while to get down to editing/writing. The new boss asked to look at the paper which is fair I thought as I was being hired based on it. I received some input on it (mainly how bad I am at writing, which I know) But I wonder if the new boss will feel that this input deserves acknowledgment. The work was completed a year ago in my old institute with no involvement of anybody here and when my old boss gets to it, I am sure I wont need two people telling me how bad my writing is)

What is right?

Sorry about the vagueness, I dont want to step on toes.

Anonymous said...

For better or worse, I have begun to largely disregard articles in CVs that aren't first author papers amongst my peers.

I am a materials science postdoc at a national lab that came from a relatively small grad group and program, so there weren't many opportunities for intragroup collaborations and coauthorships. My h index is based entirely on my first author papers. Those that I did get on I contributed to in a meaningful role, but would never claim much credit for in future job talks etc. However, I often see students from big groups and collaborations in my field with coauthorships on Nature Materials papers that have 10-20 authors. Maybe the second author from the same group contributed meaningfully and some may have done measurements on samples, but I seriously doubt that every person on such a paper earned that authorship. That can boost their h index to a much more impressive number even though they have the same number of first author publications with similar impacts.

How do you view these kinds of CVs? If you are on a search committee, how much credit do you give for impressive middle author publications? Certainly the descriptions that Don Monroe mentions above help, but they can still be vague and misleading.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon@10:41, it sounds like an acknowledgment for the new boss would be reasonable if the comments really help with the presentation style. Coauthorship does not sound appropriate to me in this case, unless the new boss really contributed something scientifically.

Anon@6:55, in general people look much harder at first-author (or equivalent) papers. Someone should have a decent chunk of work that they can call their own. I guess what I'm saying is, middle author publications are a fine thing, but first-author is generally much more strongly perceived.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that I happen to know a professor in HEP who claimed that his works were cited over 20K times with a so called h-index of blah blah, yet no one knows what he actually did in these papers. I heard from rumors that even a secretary can be in charge of preparing author lists by simply pulling out names from a data base. Isn't it ironical for science?
For condensed matter physics, I guess most researchers know how challenge it is to publish a paper as the first author or a leading corresponding author. Yet unfortunately, the culture is rewarding much more those so-called "collaborating" authors with their contributions no one knows. :) Authorship is a business nowadays.