The culture of biomedical research places enormous emphasis on high-profile publications. A few papers in Nature or Science can launch scientific careers, while failure to publish at a sufficient rate can doom other scientists. Members of admissions and tenure committees must sort through numerous applicants while simultaneously juggling their normal research commitments. This pressure leads these keepers of the gates to use PubMed listings as a proxy for individual potential.
But getting published is not really enough. Where your name falls in the byline carries a great deal of weight as well. A new paper in EMBO Reports examines the perceived contributions of authors based on their byline position. Wren et al. surveyed promotion committee members at 125 AAMC-accredited medical schools and asked them to rate the contributions of the first, middle and last authors as a function of total authors listed. Specifically, respondents could rate contributions in terms of the project’s initial conception, work performed and supervision.
As expected, survey respondents rated first authors the highest in terms of work performed while rating last authors the highest in terms of initial conception and supervision. However, increasing the number of authors from three to five decreased the perceived contributions of the first and middle authors while having no significant effect on the perceived contribution of the last author. Here’s a table with the numbers:
Clearly it is in the first author’s best interest to minimize the number of other authors on a paper. However, given the importance of authorship in the success of collaborators’ careers, it is essential that everyone is recognized for their contributions. While most of my previous supervisors have been generous with authorship (I am currently a middle author on one paper and a couple more are in the pipeline), this is not always the case. All too often, senior investigators neglect to credit junior laboratory members.
While this is problematic, an even more concerning trend is “author inflation.” Wren et al. asked survey respondents about the prevalence of honorary authorships, in which additional researchers are included in the byline merely to pad their resumes. 40% of respondents indicated that this practice was commonplace, and 50% reported that this practice made it harder to judge who deserved promotion.
In practice, science is becoming increasingly collaborative and reducing the number of authors on papers may be a lost cause. In fact, the general trend is moving in the opposite direction. Here is another figure from the Wren et al. paper that demonstrates the movement toward more authors:
One way of assisting admissions and promotions committees with the task of ranking candidates is the inclusion of author contribution statements that describe who did what for the paper. While Wren et al. indicate that such statements are helpful, ironically they do not include one on their own paper. PNAS and PLoS journals already require statements that clarify what each author contributed. Here is an example from a recent PLoS Biology paper:
Author contributions. GCF, JLV, and IM conceived and designed the experiments. GCF performed the experiments and analyzed the data. GCF, BS, and JLV contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools. GCF, BS, and IM wrote the paper.
This is certainly a step in the right direction and hopefully more journals will adopt the practice of contribution statements. To paraphrase someone with something much more important to say: I have a dream that one scientists will not be judged by their byline position but by the magnitude of their contributions.