24 September 2015

Everybody gets to be corresponding author!

Spotted in the comments section of DrugMonkey’s blog:

(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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?.

Related posts

When does authorship stop meaning anything useful?
Letter in Science


Anonymous said...

Your post was linked over from Drugmonkey. I can share my experience and observation about some of this--or at least my anecdata.

I had a couple of projects that I developed as a postdoc and finished in my own lab as PI. For the first one, I did the bench work in two different locations as both trainee and PI, but started the project as a postdoc. So, I was first and corresponding author, and the former boss was last author. Both funding sources were acknowledged. It seemed a good compromise. Another project started with some preliminary samples from my postdoc lab (not even one figure's worth). On that one I am senior (last) and corresponding author, but the former boss is a coauthor.

In an entirely different situation, a colleague in my department (we are both PIs) and I are working on a manuscript that is a true collaboration between labs. It would be remotely possible without each of our different sets of experience and expertise. We are planning to submit as co-corresponding authors. This situation results from the very distinct disciplines of the two PIs. In my field, the other PI's subject area isn't even on the radar (yet), while the same applies to the collaborator's discipline.

Four co-corresponding authors seems strange, but I can imagine situations where n>1 might apply, especially with the increasing need for collaborative projects of great scope to just get considered for funding.

Noncoding Arenay said...

I regularly see two "last" authors that are both corresponding senior authors. As the person above mentioned, it stems from collaborations. As an anecdote from my personal experience, while I was a postdoc I once came up with a new direction within the overall theme of our lab. Consequently, I planned the study, designed and conducted experiments, analyzed the data and wrote the paper. My PI participated in some data analysis and writing of the paper. In this scenario, I'm first and corresponding author while he's the last and corresponding author on the resulting paper. I wanted to be corresponding author on this paper for the exact reasons that DM mentioned.

Anonymous said...

I've been corresponding author and first author on my first three papers in grad school. The reason was because I designed the experiments, got the funding, did the work, and wrote the paper. My PI let me use her lab equipment, but I had to pay for disposable supplies (animals in my case). The PI helped proofread the paper, but that was about it. As a result, the PI didn't feel that she understood my research well enough to field questions on it, hence why I was corresponding.