Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Positions in journal author lists- do they matter?

Here, I briefly focus on some of the conventions associated with the order of authors on journal articles, and discuss some of the interpretations and significance of these. Read on to find out how your authorship decisions now may affect your future career...

First, there are distinct cultural differences in authorship among different disciplines, which makes it extremely difficult to generalise. One of the take-home messages here is: find out what is the practice in your discipline. In some disciplines (e.g. the social sciences), it is not unusual for PhD students to publish their journal articles as sole author publications (i.e. without their supervisor). In other disciplines, the student is the lead author and the supervisor is a co-author. Where there are multiple authors, the custom in some disciplines (or countries) is for authors to appear in alphabetical order.

So what is the significance associated with the order of authors? Given the variety of practices across disciplines, this is very difficult to generalise. Nevertheless, I'll focus here on my own experience of publishing papers in the life sciences. Three specific roles can be identified: the lead author, the corresponding author, and the last author. It is clear that the role of lead author indicates a significant amount of heavy lifting by this person! They will have taken the lead in asembling the ideas, writing the paper and co-ordinating the input from any co-authors. The role of corresponding author (in my experience) usually receives relatively little emphasis. However, some people do infer a leadership role from the corresponding author. The interpretation of the position of last author is an interesting case. In the case of a two-author study involving a PhD student, the last author will almost certainly be the supervisor. As more and more PhD students are involved in collaborative projects, there will be more authors involved. (A former PhD student who I've worked with for several years was the lead author of a large multi-author study Kirwan et al. 2007). However, the position of the last author usually indicates an individual who (in addition to satisfying the requirements for authorship) has made a substantial contribution to the leadership and strategic direction of the project. Again, the interpretation of the position of last author varies widely - and someone has to be at the end of the list!

I was motivated to write this post following the specification by a funding agency that an eligibility criterion for application for their funding was that an applicant had to be a senior author on at least 15 international peer-reviewed journal articles. A senior author was defined as an author who was either the first author, corresponding author or last author. This is a demanding threshold level, and is sure to select individuals who are excellent at publishing. This is one of the stated eligibility criteria of the funding agency, and they are perfectly entitled to do so.

Research performance can be measured by a variety of metrics, but the number and quality of research papers is an especially prominent one. Researchers face a strong expectation to publish regularly, and will usually need to win research funding to pursue their research interests (and advance their careers). Added requirements to not just publish, but to also be a senior author only increase the existing pressures associated with authorship. Here, my aim is for PhD students to be aware of the potential interpretations of their order in a list of multiple authors (for articles from your PhD, and beyond) and the potential consequences.

Discuss authorship early in the development of a research article, including your order in the author list (update: see  our related post Manage the authorship of your journal publications). This will help avoid difficult and unnecessary disputes. Sometimes, there may be a need to be clear/assertive about your authorship role and position (especially if conventions or agreements are being flouted, or there is inappropriate allocation of credit -note that this can be difficult to interpret). Amid the short-term gains from less contentious discussions, however, also remember that your ability and reputation as a team player in research collaborations will greatly benefit your long term career.

PhD Skill:  Learn about the authorship customs in your discipline, and be aware of eligibility and authorship requirements of the funding agencies that you may apply to in the future.

 photo credit: ronky via photopin cc


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