Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Fifth author, twice removed

by PhilipJ on 19 January 2007

This month’s PLoS Biology has a correspondence from a number of scientists* on the problem of assessing the contributions of each author on a multi-author paper (open access, as per PLoS usual).

They go on to list a number of sensible options for determining the author sequence based on credit. The technique I assume most common is that of “SDC”, or “sequence-determines-credit”. The first author played the most important role, while the following authors’ contributions are monotonically decreasing. In the “EC” scheme (“equal-contribution”), the authors should be listed alphabetically. Another option, “FLAE”, for “first-last-author-emphasis”, can be used when the second most “important” author is the final name on the list. A fourth and final suggestion is that “PCI”, or “percent-contribution-indicated”, where each author is assigned a percentage of the total credit for the paper.

However, I was very surprised to learn that detailed quantitative calculations based on schemes similar to these are routinely used by evaluation committees, with the impact factor of the journal thrown in as a scaling factor. This seems overly silly to me, as we already know that the impact factor is a pretty poor judge of impact, and when listing things like the percent you’ve contributed to a paper, well, who knows what you’ve actually done.

While all the above author-list-schemes are reasonable enough, I think it makes more sense to simply list what exactly each author contributed to the paper, and the relative worth can be left unsaid. This is the path being taken by a number of journals, including most recently Science, and as Alex pointed out at the time, perhaps this will lead to papers without sprawling author lists who are included for very questionable reasons.

* Thankfully the authors let us know who did all the legwork, as the authors followed the SDC, or “sequence-determins-credit”, approach.

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