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.