(C)an someone explain to me how a paper in this week’s Science is able to have 4 freaking corresponding authors?
It’s worse than that. In this week’s Science, there is one paper with two corresponding authors, one with three, and one with four corresponding authors, as mentioned above.
And that paper with four corresponding authors? It only has four authors! As Oprah might put it:
On top of that, the paper with four corresponding authors also has a note that two of the authors “contributed equally.”
DrugMonkey’s reply is on the ball:
It is because the Corresponding Author marker has now become a tick mark of academic contribution and credit instead of a mere convenience for getting in touch with the research team. So much like we’ve seen metastasis of “co-equal” first (and now last) authors, we’re seeing expansion of corresponding author credits.
We now have at least three “indicators” of relative contributions to a paper:
- First author: this is usually assumed to be the person who did most of the “boots on the ground” work, a grad student or post-doc.
- Last author: This is usually assumed to be the boss, the principle investigator, the person who came up with the idea and got the grant.
- Corresponding author: Um... to me, I would take this as a signal that this person is the boss. That is, it’s the exact same assumption I make for “last author.”
If I saw a paper with different last author and corresponding author, I’d be confused. Add in multiple corresponding authors and multiple “co-last” authors and equal contribution notes, and I have no idea who’s to credit (or, if it’s bad, who’s to blame).
This is not an idle exercise for me. My new university is in the middle of trying to develop new promotion and tenure guidelines. I’m on a departmental tenure and promotion committee. Figuring out how people interpret authorship (particularly upper administration) has real implications for people’s careers. A couple of years ago, one administrator was complaining that our tenure-track faculty didn’t have enough first authored papers, apparently not realizing that in biology, the norm is that they would be last author on papers.
This is yet another indication of the phenomenon I’ve been talking about for a while. The concept of “authorship” for scientific papers isn’t the right model for assigning credit in large collaborative research projects.
Additional, 25 September 2015: Scott Edmunds on Twitter notes that “corresponsing author” has monetary value:
Chinese authors get paid (and also pay) to be corresponding, first and last author
He gave links out to China's Publication Bazaar and The outflow of academic papers from China: why is it happening and can it be stemmed?.
When does authorship stop meaning anything useful?
Letter in Science