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!