Ad Lagendijk Ad Lagendijk 26 January 2012

“The nature of the contribution of every author should be made clear”

Posted in Ethics, Getting published, High-impact journals

Being an author of a scientific paper is still the most secure building bock of a scientific career and a way to recognition. As a result people fight to be on the author list and are disappointed – if not angry – when they feel that they are left out for no good reason.

The criteria for earning a coauthorship  differ from discipline to discipline and from country to country. It is not uncommon for a director of a big institute to have a publication list of over a thousand entries. It is clear that he cannot even have read all those papers.

The ever increasing average number of authors on a publication brings about a problem in case the paper turns out to be based on fraudulent material, like cooked up data. Who should be held responsible?

To cope with this situation a number of journals, including high-impact journals as Nature and Science, request a short statement from the authors in which “The nature of the contribution of every author should be made clear”.

Journal editors put forward as argument that this requirement will protect the young scientists from being saddled with a number of “honorary” coauthors.

How does this work out in practice. I will take the first article of this week’s issue of Nature (Nature 481, 457–462 (26 January 2012)):

Endothelial and perivascular cells maintain haematopoietic stem cells
Lei Ding, Thomas L. Saunders, Grigori Enikolopov & Sean J. Morrison

Let us now look at the statement about author contributions

L.D. performed all of the experiments. T.L.S. helped to design and generate the Scffl and Scfgfp mice. G.E. generated the nestin-Cherry transgenic mice. L.D. and S.J.M. designed the experiments, interpreted the results and wrote the manuscript.

There are a number of things I do not look at all about this statement and that is why I really hate these statements like hell. Apparently in the Dallas group first authors do not get a chance to learn to write an article. First authors are used for “slave labor’.

Another example of hard labor,  Nature 481, 219–223 (12 January 2012)

An unanticipated architecture of the 750-kDa α6β6holoenzyme of 3-methylcrotonyl-CoA carboxylase
Christine S. Huang, Peng Ge, Z. Hong Zhou & Liang Tong

with the following statement about contributions.

C.S.H. carried out protein expression, purification and crystallization experiments, mutagenesis and enzymatic assays. C.S.H. and L.T. carried out crystallographic data collection and processing, structure determination and refinement. P.G. and Z.H.Z. carried out electron microscopy experiments. All authors commented on the manuscript. L.T. supervised the project, analysed the data and wrote the paper

Ego’s and sociology
Good scientists have big ego’s. They will do whatever it takes to put themselves at the forefront. This author-contribution statement gives them a great opportunity to show how important they are. The young scientists who are coauthors suffer from this and it will make their chances for a career dimmer and will give them a black view on science.  If the contribution statement overestimates the contribution of the boss, who will be able to correct.

What is a contribution?
During a research project the involved scientists discuss freely and influence each other. One remark of an envisaged coauthor might speed up the process by months. This continuous process of collaboaration cannot and should not be quantified and made explicit. Why should a participant bring in all his ideas if in the author-contribution list this will not be honored.

My experience is that if the situation in a group is such that an open discussion  is possible about who did what, the discussion about who did what always ends up in a quarrelsome atmoshere. Even once in a while ending up in a conflict.

My former PhD student Sanli Faez after having analyzed this problem came with an excellent suggestion. The only acceptable reason for a journal to require such a statement is the fact that the editors want to know who is responsible for the content. So in case of emergency they know who to hold accountable.

So the in my opinion best statement – as first suggested by Sanli – about contributions should be

All authors take full resposibility for the content of the paper

Or, if not all the authors dare to take the full reponsibility, the statement should make clear who is responsible for what. And such a statement is totally different from who did what.

Lesson for junior scientist
Unfortunately the present situation will last for quite some time to come. If  a young scientist has a choice regarding in what group she could do her PhD research, a look at some author-contribution statements in papers authored by the group leader might give quite some information about the atmosphere in the group.

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  1. Jacopo Bertolotti

    26 Jan 2012 9:40, Jacopo Bertolotti

    Maybe it is just me but I always implicitly assumed that anyone willing to be listed as an author is willing (and capable) to both defend the work and take responsability for it.
    The only authors who may have some form of excuses are very young ones. Given their inexperience they might not be fully aware of all the implications of what they are doing. Anyone else, from the level of PhD students, should be fully accountable in case of fraud or other big problems.

    Regarding the “nature of the contribution of every author”, such statements make sense (at least to me) only if you want to make clear beyond any doubt that an author who is not the first one, actualy did a lot more work than it can be desumed by just looking at the author list. Stating that the last author (presumably a senior) did look at the manuscript is in between redundant and offensive.

  2. f.vanbeijnum

    26 Jan 2012 18:46, f.vanbeijnum

    @Jacopo: I think technicians that perform a critical step in the scientific process should also be co-authors, however I do not expect them to defend the work and take responsibility.

    Moreover, as work is getting more and more multidisciplinary, and with more diverse collaborations, taking full responsibility may become trickier. For example, I could imagine having an important contribution to work in the medicine or astronomy department, without being able to fully comprehend the content of that work.

  3. Otto Muskens

    29 Jan 2012 13:56, Otto Muskens

    I think the use of contribution descriptions is more obvious in multidisciplinary research / more complex collaborations where various groups contribute to different components of the research, i.e. biological, chemistry, imaging etc. Then it can also be useful for a reader to identify which group to contact for more specific information or to discuss possible collaborations.

  4. Unregistered

    31 Jan 2012 22:08, Gijs van Soest

    Just as a point of view, here is the co-author policy of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, one of the top journals in cardiology.
    The Editors consider authorship to include all of the following: 1)
    conception and design or analysis and interpretation of data, or
    both; 2) drafting of the manuscript or revising it critically for
    important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the
    manuscript submitted. Participation solely in the collection of
    data does not justify authorship.
    (emphasis mine).
    Note that this criterion excludes some of the Nature authors in Ad’s post. These rules may be too strict, but at least here is a journal that publishes its criteria. I find myself using them when drafting author lists for any journal, and then follows a double check if everyone got due credits.

  5. Mirjam

    4 Mar 2012 13:09, Mirjam

    Quote: “Good scientists have big ego’s”.
    What is ‘good’? Some of the greatest scientists I know are very humble. In fact, this can be what makes them great. They don’t need the ego to be recognized.

  6. Mirjam

    4 Mar 2012 13:12, Mirjam

    The contribution statement can also reveal who is on a paper for political reasons, but did not do much/any work; usually indicated with some sufficiently vague phrase.

  7. Ad Lagendijk

    5 Mar 2012 15:32, Ad Lagendijk

    @1 I think I should have replaced “good scientists” by “successful scientists”. The overlap between successful and good scientists is not zero, but close to measure 0. I certainly also know some humble successful scientists, but I know many, many more who are not humble.

    @2 This will only work if the senior scientist, last author, has enough guts to – even if vague – “expose” the political contribution.

  8. Unregistered

    5 May 2013 17:18, Bingo Crepuscule

    I beg to differ with you Ad Lagendijk. I really love these statements. It helps to prune the author list to only those who really contributed or gets everyone to contribute.

    Ever seen a statement like this:
    Authors: A.B., C.D., E.F., G.H. and I.J.
    A.B. and C. D. performed the experiments. A.B., E. F. and G. H. designed the experiments, interpreted the results and wrote the manuscript. I.J. corrected the manuscript for typos especially details of her double affiliation, was responsible for the salaries of A.B., C.D. in the project proposal that she wrote, and is an influential person in this field.

    No! So if the journal asks a contribution statement, I.J. will do her damnedest to make a real contribution, and come in for example in:
    I.J.interpreted the results and wrote the manuscript.

    Otherwise all authors will be taking part in the lie…. and that is a slippery slope!

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