What’s an author?

Dr Robin Rose writes: Recently, the scientific community was presented with a paper containing the names of no fewer than 21 authors in Nature. The race for recognition in certain areas of study appears to have many scientists battling for authorships on as many papers as will accept them. Any number of journals seem to find this acceptable. Thinking back through my long career in science I cannot recall ever seeing an article or “letter,” in this case, with so many authors: 1/21 would suggest an average 4.76% contribution, with some contributing more and some less (!). While collaboration is often praiseworthy, I found myself asking more than a few questions:

(1) How does a paper with so many authors actually get written, accepted for review, and then revised? What does author mean in such a case?

(2) How does such a paper ‘count’ in terms of value in academic promotion and tenure? Did 20+ people have the same idea at the same time?

(3) What level of credit does each author take when such a paper is part of a resumé or when citation statistics are considered?

(4) After the first three to five authors, how is the contribution of the rest gauged?

(5) Does the author order have some significance when there are 20+?

(6) Is research more credible with 20+ authors? Should journals allow for 30+ authors?

(7) Are 20+ authors meant as some sort of statement, whether scientific, political or scientifically political?

(8) Were authors added as a way to strengthen the conclusions, but also implying that a few did most of the work, more did a bit of the work, and the rest did very little?

(9) Are the authors part of a collective group? Why not use the group name as the author?

(10) Are we witnessing “author inflation?”

Such questions are important for scientists, journal editors, and their supervisors to sort out. Maybe papers with high author counts are intended to display some harmony that exists in the international academic and research community. Maybe we need to stop using the vague “et al” and go to “first author name plus 20” (the specific number of co-authors) so as to better clarify multiple contributions. There may be more issues, questions, and possibilities but I’ll leave those to countless other authors.

Dr Robin Rose, Research Cooperative College of Forestry, Oregon State University.

Maxine Clarke, on behalf of the Nature journals, adds: we welcome responses (in the comments section below) to Dr Rose’s points. Our authorship policies do not specify a particular order or maximum number of authors, but we do strongly encourage authors to include a statement in the end notes to specify the actual contribution of each coauthor to the completed work.


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    antoine blanchard said:

    This question, “what’s an author?” has even gained importance recently with the Hwang scandal where one co-author had his name on the paper, whereas he basically did not contribute to it — except for his fame.

    This question has long been investigated by sociologists of science and scientometricians, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. As far as the former is concerned, there is no doubt that co-authorship is increasing, together with internationalization, except for a few fields like social sciences or mathematics! For the latter, Birnholtz’

    case study of authorship at the European CERN is quite informative since the high-energy physics community developed strategies to deal with the so-called “hyperauthorship”. One can also refer to that study drawing from another field: M. Biagioli, “Aporias of scientific authorship, credit and responsibility in contemporary biomedicine”, id. (ed.) The Science Studies Reader, New York, Routledge, 1999, p.

    12-30. Because as you suggest, everyday practices (whom shall I acknowledge and whom shall I add as a co-author? shall I use multi-criterion decision making as suggested recently ?) and broad framing questions (what does it mean to be an author?) are really entangled and cannot be separated from each other…

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    Benjamin D. Ferguson said:

    I had some similar questions a while ago regarding the criteria for authorship. Seems like those presiding over the 21-author paper should have gone through a similar examination.

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    Maxine said:

    Maxine adds to Dr Ferguson’s comment: as I wrote as a footnote to Dr Rose’s post, “Our authorship policies do not specify a particular order or maximum number of authors, but we do strongly encourage authors to include a statement in the end notes to specify the actual contribution of each coauthor to the completed work.” Our authorship policy (on our author and referee policy site) makes our definition of “author” clear, and all authors of submitted articles sign up to these.

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    John Quackenbush said:

    Unfortunately, Dr. Rose’s comments regarding authorship ignore the realities of large-scale collaborative science, a world which the biological sciences have now entered. The beauty of genome-scale science is that it brings together people from a range of disciplines – clinicians, bench biologists, statisticians, bioinformatics scientists, and others – to achieve something that none of them could have done alone. In the multi-author studies I have been involved in, each and every person listed as an author contributed some critical element of what is presented and each should be recognized for his or her contribution. To not do so would be intellectually dishonest.

    Talking about percentages of the total effort is not meaningful in this context. In an arch, the keystone might represent only 1% of the total mass, but its role is essential. The same could be said for large collaborative projects.

    In the end, we should stop worrying about who did what and instead ask how the work advances the field. This is science after all, not accounting.

    Perhaps it is time that we take some lessons from the high energy physicists who solved this problem long ago.

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    Steven Salzberg said:

    I’ve been an author on many of these large consortia papers (in genomics), and Dr. Rose simply doesn’t understand how they work. But I can assure Dr. Rose that the authors make a genuine contribution. For example, the malaria genome paper (Gardner et al., Nature 419 (2002), 498-511) had nearly 50 authors. That paper was the culmination of a 6-year effort by an international consortium to sequence and analyze the genome of the malaria parasite, and everyone on the author list (including me) spent years on some aspect of the project. In fact, we could have easily included more names on the list. The range of expertise required to complete this project spanned many fields, and the paper was strengthened by including a diverse group of experts in the project – many of whom contributed text to the paper itself.

    Having an artificial limit on the number of names makes no sense at all. On the contrary, scientists should be encouraged to bring in additional expertise – and to include additional co-authors – when that expertise will strengthen the scientific results.

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    Jonathan Hunt said:

    On the positive side, do multiple authors indicate increasing multidisciplinary research? Many areas (particularly experimental research) might require the involvement of a large number of experts in various subfields. In these cases, all the authors did contribute and I view papers of this nature as a very worthwhile, allowing several cutting edge techniques to be combined.

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    RPM said:

    I posted my thoughts here. I would have done it earlier, but the Security Code feature wasn’t appearing in my browser.

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    Eduard Matito said:

    I’m not familiar with the needs of certain research fields, and maybe so many authors are actually needed to carry out the research.

    However, there is a very important consequence on many authors papers. How to split the merits of such research? Researchers are promoted, funded, granted or awarded according to their research outputs.

    5% contribution in 100 papers, should it count as 5 papers? Does it make a difference being fifth or seventh author? In my research field, it does make a difference the order of appearance (is the order of importance!), who is the corresponding author or how many people are co-authoring the paper. In those papers were I appear as 5th or 7th author is because my contribution to the paper has been very small. And that’s how I guess it is interpreted each time I apply for a grant, award or any other scientific recognition.

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    Yao Tang said:

    I would like to know the difination on Corresponding Author. Some PIs do not read relative ariticles, do not participate in design, plan, nor doing the experiment, of cause, but they are the corresponding author simply because they are grant owners. My question is: if a PI only plays a role in the final editing of a manuscript, without knowing how and why the data were generated, can he be the corresponding author?

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