Monday, July 26, 2010

Who is an author?

I've been thinking about this issue today because I am having a disagreement with a collaborator about the author list of a paper. This collaborator considers themselves to be "strict" with authorship. I think they are being a total jerk. Our disagreement is over the status of technician on a paper.

At National Lab, like at a university, the PI gets to decide who is an author. My inclination, which is how things worked in my branch at National Lab is to list everyone who contributed to the work as an author. This means that technicians are authors, not just listed in the acknowledgements. This is different from the definition of an inventor for patent purposes (an inventor has to have made an intellectual contribution, which may or may not be true of a technician, depending on the tech and the lab). My collaborator (from a different branch at National Lab) prefers to use the inventor rules for authorship, and relegates everyone else (even some of the people who actually generated the data) to acknowledgments.

Thus the argument--I want my technician listed as an author. Collaborator wants my technician in the acknowledgements only. My technician took data that is critical to the paper, which I think earns authorship. My technician did this under my direction, and followed my protocols without changes, which my collaborator thinks means no intellectual contribution (and for a patent, they would be right). This was a joint project, so we are co-PIs, and I can't just override their objections. I am hoping to end this disagreement quickly (and amicably, but since I am no longer at National Lab, I will fight pretty hard for my tech, especially since collaborator will have limited opportunity to screw me over in the future).

The broader question of who is an author is interesting to me as a new TT prof. I've been in labs where authorship was treated as a prize to be handed out. All morality aside, this leads to awful group dynamics. But making everyone in the group an author is just as bad--why work when you can expand the CV for nothing? I've also been in groups where the bar to authorship is pretty high, and this can lead to reluctance to help out a groupmate with something time consuming. I've been fortunate to work mostly with people who are upfront about authorship rules, and don't renege at the end. I've heard many horror stories, though.

I am in a sub-field where collaboration is the norm, since our experiments require multiple disparate areas of expertise. A typical paper in my research area will have 3 to 10 co-authors. My own philosophy is to give proper credit as much as possible, both for ethical reasons, and because I find that people are far more willing to work with me when they know they will be properly credited. In my group, I keep track of what everyone is working on, and I also encourage my students to let me know when someone has made a substantial contribution that might be invisible to me as the PI so we give proper credit where credit is due. After leaving National Lab, I see how truly important this is, since I need to trust that my former colleagues will do the right thing with the projects I left behind. In my previous collaborations, each PI submitted a list of contributors in order of importance, and that combined list became the author list. I see now that I will need to discuss this issue right up front, since fighting about it at the endpoint is a real drain.


Anonymous said...

A colleague in my field wrote up his view on this up a long time ago, and it seems to nicely summarize how it is usually done:

GMP said...

There is a large gray area between a clear acknowledgement and a clear coauthorship. Most faculty in academia don't take data any more -- does that mean none of us should be coauthors?
My guidelines would roughly be: to be a coauthor, the person has to have made a significant contribution to one or more of the following aspects: conception of the project idea, design and/or setup of the experiment, data acquisition, data processing, data interpretation, and paper writing. For instance, a journal like Nature will have you spell out author contributions and they go along these lines.

I would say that someone who actually took the data, even if following an established protocol, certainly deserves to be on the paper: most undergrads and newbie grad students do exactly that, but of course we have them coauthor papers, right? I don't see why your tech would not be a coauthor.

I don't envy you having to fight your collaborator about this, though... Good luck!

traineetheorist said...

I think GMP has it down to a tee - I can't add any more to it. If someone makes a significant contribution in one or more area they deserve co-authorship, including if they've taken data.

It seems to be a fairly common occurrence amongst some academics to look down upon technicians, even when they're doing the same as undergrad or grad students, who they wouldn't hesitate to give co-authorship to. It's some kinda hierarchy and discriminations that really sucks.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Your collaborator is wrong. Oh, and what GMP said.

In grad school, The Boss gave us a handout at group meeting spelling out the criteria for being a coauthor vs. acknowledgments. TB also required students, when drafting a manuscript, to suggest an order of authors AND clearly list reasons for the order-even if the journal didn't require this. This really cut back on political BS. (at least related to co-authorship!!!)

prodigal academic said...

Anon, thanks for the link, but I disagree with the "replaceability" standard (or at least don't find it useful for my field). Technicians in the lab are highly skilled people with lots of specialized training. Our measurements are not like put this sample into a machine, hit a button, and there is the data. Yes, any trained person with good hands in the lab could do them, but why should students and technicians be held to different standards?

GMP, I totally agree with you regarding authorship and who qualifies.

TT, I've seen this attitude towards technicians at National Lab too, and it is ugly.

UR, that is a good idea. Too bad I can't do that with my collaborators!

Dr.Girlfriend said...

I totally agree with the above sentiments that your technician deserves to be an author.

In my experience the term "technician" covers a wide range of people. Some do just do lab house work and make media and other menial tasks, while others are managerial types, and many have independent projects they are working on.

Many technicians go on to grad school or aspire to industry positions, and for them publications are just as important as they are for undergrads and grad students.

Regardless, if they are consciously generating data for a known cause then they deserve authorship.

namnezia said...

My technician has been a co-author whenever any of the data she collected was used on the paper. Why does your collaborator even care? In cases of collaborations I think it is customary to defer to each individual PI who from their group gets to be in the paper.

prodigal academic said...

Dr. G, I agree on the technician thing--we had 3 in the lab at various times at National Lab. Most had a BS in science, and were deciding what they wanted to do next. One went on to a PhD, one got a M.Ed. and teaches science, and one got an MS in a different field, and works as a non-PI researcher in a medical center.

Namnezia, I have no idea why my collaborator cares. In all my prior collaborations, it was as you said--each PI determined who went on from their lab. This person seems to have appointed themself the "guardian of proper attribution". Very annoying.

Candid Engineer said...

Tell him/ her to get over him/ herself. That is ridiculous, and it should be up to you to determine who deserves authorship from your lab. The people who rake the data make the whole show run.

I've thought about this issue a lot in my own lab, where we have a ton of people with different areas of expertise. We tend to reward one another for helping out through authorship- this ensures collaboration and cooperation in the future. It only takes one bad experience to sour a person from helping others when there doesn't seem to be any upswing.

prodigal academic said...

Update: my technician is an author. My co-PI thought he was "helping learn the right way to assign credit". This is a hazard of staying in the same place for a permanent position after being a trainee (I met my co-PI when I was a postdoc at National Lab, but jeez that was a really long time ago!).