Demystifying Scientific Authorship

Over the last few months, I’ve been talking quite a bit with historians. Many of them are starting to read more biology papers; some are perplexed by the format and brevity. So, I plan on occasionally writing posts that I hope will help non-science folks and students cope with science literature.

A recent question:  how can a paper have ten or more authors? Who is in charge of the project?

A science paper is not an essay like a history or literature publication. Its is a research report representing the work of a whole team. There are very few soloists in science.   In some ways “authorship” is really not the right term for the names on the report, but it is historical convention.

There are no hard and fast rules for who is named on a paper or their order. However, names can be classified in four groups in relatively this order  on papers with more than four  authors.

  • First author: recognition of  the person who has done the most bench work. First authorship is important in the development of a researcher because it shows that they have accomplished new laboratory experiments and can do the daily management of experiments. The first author is usually a grad student or post-doc (post-doctoral fellow). When there are multiple authors (>4), the first author is never the project leader.
  • Research contributors: other members of the team including research assistants, post-docs, and other grad students. Research assistants are finally getting recognition for what is often a career long commitment to a project.  Specialists who provide unique services like pathologists or bioinformatics/ computer specialists may also be included here. Ultimately it is the principal investigator who determines which other members of the team are recognized on the paper.
  • Materials contributors: providers of unique materials that are vital to the project. Examples of material contributors include physicians who collect patient specimens, archaeologists who provide access to bones or teeth, or molecular biologists who provide a vital clone or research organism (like a specially bred rat etc).
  • Principal Investigator, usually called the PI,  is the person responsible for the project on federal grants. They are the project director. Roles of the PI include research direction and administration,  recruiting, funding, and outreach to the scientific community as much as the public. They are always the last author listed on publications and usually designated as the corresponding author. When in doubt, always go with the corresponding author as the project leader.

For large multi-center studies, like some of the recent plague genetics papers, there can be multiple PIs (designated by multiple corresponding authors) and the recognition of more than one ‘first author’ (notation that multiple people contributed equally). Some newer publications will have some indication of who contributed to what. It is fairly unusual for any one person to be designated as the author (writer) of the paper, even though there is usually one primary writer.

With fewer than four authors it is nearly impossible to predict roles unless you know the individuals named. Go with the corresponding author as the project leader.

Hopefully, this has helped demystify scientific authorship. Comments and questions are always welcome!


5 thoughts on “Demystifying Scientific Authorship

  1. Hi Michelle,

    This is a very useful start for a problem that has certainly been vexing me. Here are a few other questions I have on this topic:

    1. How do we adapt a scientific citation (often specified at the head of the article) to the Chicago citation style required in historical journals? Do we include the d.o.i.? The date it appeared online or the date of publication? How do we cite pages if we read an online version with no page numbers?

    2. In discussing a scientific article in a history article or book, how would you refer to the “author” in the text: by the first author, the prinicipal investigator, the corresponding author? I have generally been using expressions related to the first author such as “[first author] et al.” or “[first author’s] team.” Is this correct?


    1. Hi George,

      Let’s see if I can answer these questions.

      1. The Chicago Manual of Style should tell you how to site scientific journal articles. If you download the PDF it will look exactly like the print copy with page numbers.

      2. People or teams are rarely referred to by name in science papers (unless its for a theory which is usually given in a solo author article). It is more common to refer to the data or conclusions with references in endnotes. You can do either “[first author] et al.” or PI’s team. Don’t refer to the first author’s team because they are often a student. I often refer to them by their location (city or university) and then give a reference to the paper.


  2. Historians who feel the need to obtain data, methods or theory from another discipline often fail to read a paper as an insider would, appropriating questionable or outdated material without understanding the position of a paper within disciplinary debates, or rejecting as useless material which is simply structuring truth claims in an unfamiliar way. It doesn’t help that most practitioners of a scientific or humanities discipline are not fully conscious of the way their own discipline or subdiscipline works.

    There is no single rhetoric, or epistemology, or methodology, even within each of the natural sciences. Nevertheless, it might be useful for someone familiar with a discipline or disciplines to sketch out some of the things to look out for.

    Thus, how does the rhetoric of footnotes or endnotes operate within a particular discipline? How is a trophy citation to be recognized and how does it serve to locate a paper within current debates?

    How do footnotes and specific terminology operate to convince the reader? What would constitute a plausible truth claim, and how do the rhetoric and described methods work to achieve this end?

    What relationships between theory and methods should the reader expect, and to what extent do the described methods usually match what actually happened in the laboratory, library, or out in the field?


    1. Hi David,

      You have asked some important and huge questions. I think they are beyond the scope of this post. I’ll keep some of this in mind as I put up more posts in this series.


      1. I didn’t mean for you, or anyone in particular, to feel obliged to provide comprehensive answers. I just threw out a few ideas that came to mind. Historians and philosophers of science think about such matters a great deal. Social historians, hardly at all.


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