Sometimes I like to write about history- i.e. things I’ve learned that you might be able to benefit from. Other times, I like to gather your collective opinions about one topic or another because it helps me firm up my own. This is going to be one of those posts.
I always thought I had pretty firmly set up in my head the guidelines that I follow for including someone as an author on a paper. Lately, circumstances have forced me to confront (again!) the fact that different people have different, and sometimes vastly, vastly different ideas of what contributions constitute criteria for authorship on a scientific paper. This has been an uncomfortable examination of my own standards and those of others.
Let’s just start with my own view. I include members of my lab on papers to which they have directly contributed data, and/or made an intellectual contribution to the work in the manuscript. Generation of a reagent only counts in a particular set of circumstances- obviously just making the TAE isn’t enough- but building a particular set of strains (that are not published elsewhere) that were used in a figure or two, would be a sufficient contribution for authorship. Seems pretty straight forward so far, right?
Here is where it gets complicated.
Let’s say that you have 3 employees- doesn’t matter if they are students, postdocs, techs or whatever, working on a single project, basically using the same technique to get at the same question. (And we almost certainly discuss whether this is a great strategy for giving people projects to begin with, and for the record I don’t do this in my lab…but that is not the question right now.) Scientist A and Scientist B do lots of experiments, but the data is never great enough to appear in print. Scientist C has awesome hands, and gets the thing to work- and work beyond your wildest imagination. Do you include all of them on the paper that eventually makes its way out of the lab on this work, or not? Does it matter if they are in the lab concurrently or not?
Now let’s imagine that Scientist B, despite the fact that his/her experiments were a total bust, was letting Scientist C look over his/her notebook- and they were spending a lot of time troubleshooting together over beers on Friday afternoon-…. does that change your opinion of who should be on the paper…?
We are going to build on scenario #1 up there for this. For your own lab members you decide – in the case where Scientist C was wildly successful without input from Scientist B (i.e. both A and B performed failed experiments)- you decide that only Scientist C should be on the paper. But you’ve got a collaborator who has to make similar sorts of decisions to determine who will be authors on a collaborative paper… from both of your labs. Your collaborator has the philosophy that the lab is a team, and that no matter whether or not particular individuals produced actual data that appears in the paper….
I think you see where I am going here- how do you reconcile who goes on the paper from each lab. Does each PI decide independently who from their labs should be included, or do the PIs have to have some sort of agreement about what constitutes enough of a contribution to be included as an author?
I gave two pretty simple examples, but I know (and all of you probably do as well) that it is almost never as simple as this. There are careers to consider- and productivity is a major part of who advances to the next level. I have colleagues that put the whole lab on the paper, because then everyone has a longer CV. I was talking with a colleague last night- and after listening to the stories he/she told- I came away from feeling like authorship disagreements and disputes are more the rule than the exception.
So, what do y’all think??