Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Best in Show!

Scientists often discuss (or bicker) about the order of authorship on papers. “I got a first-author paper published!” or “I was only second author on the paper.”

What do such phrases mean?

The first author on a paper is supposed to be the person who worked the most on the paper. Usually, the researcher who did the research of the paper, not necessarily the person who did the most writing. (See Lead Author, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_author). Often, this is the graduate student who worked on the project.

The last author* is usually the professor, the one who had the vision of the project (and the money). This author is the researcher who was overseeing the project.

The other authors (second, third, etc) are other people who have worked on the project. This can include other graduate students, undergraduates, post-docs, lab techs, etc.

Figure 1: First Author: The happy grad student who is now closer to graduation.
Second Author: The fuming grad student who wishes they were first author.
Third author: The happy professor who is closer to getting tenure.

While you’re in grad school or your post-doc, you try to accumulate as many first author papers as possible. These papers prove that you can finish a research project AND write up the results.

However, once you’ve become a professor, then you want as many last author papers as possible. You’re showing the academic world that you can manage students and get them to produce results.

1) Who do you include as another author:
It’s more impressive to be the first author on a 2 person paper than on a 3 person paper so sometimes people will try to not include people who deserve to be on the paper. Ultimately, the professor is usually the one who gets the final say.
Conversely, sometimes you are forced to include someone as an author as an honorary gesture.

2) What if two people contributed to a project equally:
In this case, more than one person might deserve to be a first author. Sometimes, the journal will allow you to list the first two names with asterisks near them saying that these two authors contributed equally.
Unfortunately, many people don’t read the asterisk so if you’re the second author, you are SOL.

To solve some of these issues, journals require researchers to list author contributions.
Ex: Author 3 developed the project, Author 1 performed the experiments, Authors 2 and 3 wrote the paper.

If you’re hanging out with a scientist and she has just published a first author paper, congratulate her on the great accomplishment.
And if the scientist has been relegated to second or third author, buy her drink and help her drown her sorrows in alcohol.

Survey of Perceived Authorship (the importance of being first, second, or last): http://www.nature.com/embor/journal/v8/n11/full/7401095.html

Fun fact:  Even cats have authored papers
(Cats and Publishing Physics Research, http://www.chem.ucla.edu/harding/cats.html)

A Paper with 2900 Authors: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v412/n6846/extref/412565aa.html

*There are very few single author papers nowadays (http://www.nature.com/nature/history/full/nature06243.html).

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