Deciding the order of authors on a team based paper can be challenging: who should be included and in what order? What constitutes a contribution worthy of authorship rather than a simple acknowledgement? Feelings can run high and sadly I have fallen out with people over such matters, which in hindsight and the passage of time was just plain stupid. But at the end of the day does authorship order really matter? Does a reader actually care who did what?
It is a subject covered by Sebastian Frische writing in Nature this week. This whole question resonates with me at the moment. In the last year I have started to publish with a new set of collaborators who introduced me to an authorship code I had never heard of before – call me a naïve geologist if you like! My approach to authorship over the years has, with a few notable exceptions, always been based on a simple principle of inclusion if you were in the field, contributed to the debate you where an author irrespective of whether you actually pulled your weight in the analysis or write-up. He or she who does the most work and drives a paper forward goes first and the order there after reflects the level of contribution. A simple model based on simple principles. Last year I was introduced to the concept of the last author however. My new colleagues hold this position to be one of real prestige – the senior seat – and a view I now find to be widely held in some disciplines. It is something which I have to admit has past me by despite over twenty years of research. I always worked on the principle that to be lost in the ‘et al.’ was never a good thing! I have adopted this new approach in recent papers, but it leaves me intrigued to know what other conventions around authorship I am not aware off? In fact I would love to hear from my colleagues on this subject.
But to be honest to what extent does it really matter, after all an author is an author? In the context of REF it doesn’t with the Panel Criteria and Working Methods making no mention of authorship order or contribution. Sebastian Frische argues that it does to new academics trying to build a reputation and he draws the interesting analogy to the film industry where the credit list is vital to ones CV and the ability to get work in the future. In fact, he goes as far as to suggest that one vehicle is for academic networks, such as ResearchGate (which is currently sweeping through my own collaborator network), or academia.edu should allow authors to express their contribution to a given paper providing the equivalent of a credit list. I have to admit that to me this sounds like a potential for discord between authors. But in truth does it not go against the very principle that research – with the exception of the sole scholar – is by its very nature collaborative. In a football team all players receive a cup winner’s medal whether they scored a goal or saved a vital penalty. All contribute to the victory and all should be recognized equally? So in truth I am far from convinced. What do you think?