Just like most aspects of academia, the order of authorship for a scientific paper is a bizarre combination of essential and arbitrary. If you’re new to science, you may be wondering what the big deal is. After all, when you read an article in a normal magazine—the kind of magazine that doesn’t have tiny, crammed-together figures and 30-word titles—you see the name of a single author, or maybe two, and that’s who wrote the article. Full stop. There is absolutely nothing controversial to discuss.
In this thoughtful Science piece, Adam Ruben reflects on the absurdities in the dominant approach to authorship practices. The scale of the problem and the number of players involved probably make the problem resistant to change but we should all look for ways to move the dial. A good place to start is in institutional authorship guidance material and articulating aspirational standards. We have included links to 11 related items.
Much of this is because of the value scientists place on credit. To a casual observer, it might appear that scientists are all egotists, demanding recognition and adulation for their discoveries. But credit is not just a feel-good, like-comment-subscribe kind of commodity; it’s the currency of advancement in our field. It leads scientists to say things like, “She hasn’t gotten a postdoc yet? She has four first-author papers in top-tier journals!” or “I got bumped from third author to fifth author on a six-author paper! I shall now commit heinous deeds.”
Those unfamiliar with scientific journals may be saying, “Six authors on one paper? How do six people even write a paper together? What, do you alternate paragraphs?” The answer is it’s a bit of a lopsided affair: One person probably wrote the paper, and the other five barely saw it. The secondary authors may have contributed intellectually, analytically, or via nepotism. The important thing is that the paper exists, and six people are responsible in some way for its existence.