On authorship and risk

I have a long-standing argument with a good friend about who should co-author a paper. The particular disagreement is about the role of someone, who has substantially helped to write and shape the story of a paper.

My friend argues that if you have:
–       consistently followed the course of a project
–       provided advice and guidance in group meetings and in one-on-one discussions
–       and also helped write the paper,
but have not done any wet lab experiments or actual hands-on analysis of the data,
then you’re essentially doing the job of the PI, and thus, should be a co-author.

Generally, I agree. But when push comes to shove I’m not sure I would include people with such involvement on a publication. So, for the last couple of months I’ve been pondering why, and finally think I’ve come up with an answer: it’s a question of risk.

Wet lab research is a gamble: you don’t really know whether your idea is going to work, or if your findings will provide a just return for the effort you invested. If you are a wet lab scientist with limited time and resources, you have to place your bets on one (or a few) horse(s) – and not only might they be the wrong one(s), you might only find out after months and years of research. So, it’s risky.

What factors should count when deciding on scientific authorship? Picture modified from balance scale by winnifredxoxo via flickr)

What factors should weigh in when deciding on scientific authorship? Picture modified from balance scale by winnifredxoxo via flickr)

It’s also risky for the PI: after all, s/he provides the resources (like salaries and funding for equipment and reagents) and ultimately needs to show something for it (like publications)*.

By comparison, guidance and advice from “bystanders” is really low-risk. Ideas are cheap: if nothing comes of the experiments I suggest there’s no damage (except maybe to my ego). Helping write a paper? Even worse: I’m betting on a horse that’s already won the race. And it’s this discrepancy in risk-taking and resource investment, which is not at all reflected in author lists that I find unfair.

Having said all this, I actually think intellectual input is really important. I’ve presented at group meetings with zero feedback, and know exactly how frustrating it can be if colleagues do not think along and give advice. I’ve sent out manuscripts to co-authors without ever receiving feedback, and –even worse- with later questions revealing they hadn’t even read the paper.

With all this in mind, I was very happy to see that the new, extended author “taxonomy” put forward by the International Workshop on Contributorship and Scholarly Attribution contains considerably more categories of “soft” contributions, such as Resources, Supervision, Lab Management, several categories of Writing/manuscript preparation, etc. I really believe that if these categories are applied systematically and fairly** it could clear some of the fog about what’s behind authorship – and maybe resolve a long-standing argument with a dear friend. Why not have EVERY contributor on a paper, if you can CLEARLY say who did what?


* This is of course only true for the “average Joe” PI. Naturally, I’ve heard of those super-PIs at the pinnacle of their career with unlimited money and resources who basically have no idea of what goes on in their lab. For these the risk argument obviously doesn’t really hold…

** Yes, this goes out to all you co-authors who never gave feedback on shared manuscripts. There will be no more “XY wrote the manuscript, with input and suggestions from all the other authors”, if I have the choice of actually saying who did.


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