Deciphering authorship of scientific papers is an esoteric task. Something that raises red flags for those in the tribe of science (like 300 publications with 40 as last author) means little to anyone on the outside. “Why do you mention last author? Does it matter?”
In many fields, it is viewed as good to be the first author. But only one person can be first author, which leads to the practice of some labs having “co-first” authorship. This is usually designated by a footnote to the effect that “authors Smith and Jones contributed equally to this work.”
In one of my classes, I was discussing the practice of co-authorship, and I commented that this was rare. As it happened, later that day I had occasion to review a couple of sets of CVs, from different fields of biology. One set of CVs fell on the “basic organismal biology” side, and the other set tilted much more heavily towards the “biomedical” side.
Only 5% of the organismal biologist listed papers with “equal contributions,” compared to 45% of the biomedical scientists. Note that this isn’t percent of publications, but the percent of scientists with one or more papers with “co-first” papers. This surprised me; I didn’t think it would be that high.
I wonder if this reflects a real difference in the two fields. I think it might be. Biomedical research, I suspect, is a field where there is more money, more competition, and more team members. I think this creates an incentive for people to try to scrape together any additional credit, no matter how tiny. I have yet to meet anyone who cares about “equal contribution” footnotes when reviewing publication records.
I dislike co-first authorship, but it’s just a symptom of another antiquated part of scientific publishing that dates back to the days of small numbers of scientists. Trying to figure out who did what under current authorship practices is like trying to slice bread with a club: messy.
Letter in Science!
Co-first Authorship is a lie and a sham and an embarrassment to our profession (DrugMonkey has written extensively on co-first authorship; search his blog for much more.)