One of the most forbidden topics in most labs. Its considered „not to talk about this“.
But its one of the most important factors of your career!! Your entire career will depend on your authorship positions. This is the most important reason why so many Post Docs eventually fly out of active research. If you have not managed to publish well enough in a certain time frame your scientific career is over! And I saw many many good scientists, my friends and collegues who finally had to leave science. They became core facility staff, scientific writers, teachers or opened a café ...
But that was not our scientific dream of developing novel therapies or discovering mysteries of science ..., right?
You can be the greatest scientist, if you dont have first author high impact publications nobody believes that you are a scientist at all.
Everybody knows that publications and authorship positions can be a political issue and dont always (or usually never) reflect the real input of work into any given publication. And it is surprising how at the end of a 6-years project magically names appear on the authorship list and other names disappear from it ...
If nobody ever talks about authorship positions students are completely dependend on the goodwill of their boss till the end of every project. That brings a lot of dependency into such a professional relationship. It gives ultimate power to the PI and very often unhappiness or broken careers to the students.
What could be a solution?
I believe that simple rules can be established to avoid many many conflicts and rescue many many careers.
Every lab should have a system to discuss authorship positions on any given project on a regular basis, i.e. every 6 months. Of course, projects change and contributions change, but why not talking about it openly. Then you dont work because you HOPE that you will get your right share but because you KNOW where you stand.
Guess what kind of motivation that will give to people in their daily work ....
Just ask during your interview if there are authorship rules in the lab. To be honest: I dont know a single lab that has any authorship rules. (Except the labs in which I am establishing them right now 🙂 ) Nevertheless, I think this should exist and it should be an important decision factor for students to join a lab or not.
Here are my suggestions how authorship rules could look like:
- The boss is the last author. He/She is providing lab resources, salaries, ideas and writes the last version of each manuscript.
- Every Post Doc and every graduate student has one major project and will be the first author on that project. If that project does not make clear progress within one year the major project will be changes.
- If a Post Doc continuesly (for at least 6 months) supervises a graduate student in terms of experiments, analyses or project planning that Post Doc gets an authorship. It should not be a shared first authorship but a shared last authorship.
- If students help each other with experiments or analyses on a regular basis they will be middle authors on each others papers. This promotes a helpful environment in the lab.
- Every 6 months each employee and each collaborator gets a questionnaire (through an automated email system) and a personal meeting with the boss to discuss potential authorships and document the expectations of each party. This should establish fair authorship distributions. Depending on the development of the project authorships might change but will be regularly discussed to retain transparency.
- Each scientist who distributes a figure to a paper will be an author.
- Each scientist who puts at least 6 months of work into any project will be an author of the resulting paper nomatter if the data were „positive“ or „negative“. Preliminary studies usually dont produce final data for the resulting publication but are an important part of every study and guide us into the right direction. Therefore, they result in an authorship.
- Any student who works for 6 months on a given project gets a middle authorship on the resulting paper.
- Our technicians do highly qualified scientific work and therefore obtain authorships.
- We love to help and support other scientists with our ideas or technical expertise as we interact within a scientific community. We give those inputs for free and dont expect any authorships on your paper.
- Any collaborators who work with us longer than 6 months on any project will automatically receive our authorship questionnaire to discuss potential authorships.
- Collaborators should not expect any authorship in the first place. We expect that you give your input „for free“ for the first 6 months.
- Scientists, students, technicians or collaborating PIs who contribute single ideas, give us once technical help or let us use some of their equipment, do not get authorships on the resulting publication.
- If we collaborate with a graduate student or a Post Doc from a collaborating lab that scientist will get an authorship but not necessarily their boss.
- Depending on the situation we are always open to discuss and adjust any of these rules together with all contributing parties.
If such rules once get established they will spread from lab to lab and one day they will become a quality criteria. I truly believe that this will benefit the entire scientific community.
Please help me to distribute these ideas to as many scientists as you know. Post it on Facebook, send it to your collegues and feel free to write me at email@example.com. I am always open for suggestions, comments or additions.