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what determines authorship

What determines authorship on a scientific journal article?  Who knows?  After a PhD and 4 years in medical school, I apparenty don’t know.  A friend of mine who is a graduate student was recently approached about including someone on his paper as an author–if that person had done anything at all remotely contributing to the paper.  This was asked as a favor to the person who was to be added as an author.  My buddy was pretty steamed about it.  Understandably so, too.  You give your life, your heart and soul to a project then finish it and are asked to list some random person as an author because it would be nice for that person.  Are you kidding me???  

There is an amazing difference between what qualifies as an authorship-level contribution across institutions, labs/PIs and even students.  I was talking to another buddy of mine about this over the past weekend.  We both know a few people (at all levels: graduate student, post-doc, faculty) who have a mad crazy number of publications on their C.V.s by having an “in” with the right people.  An “in” referring to sub-significant level work leading to authorship.  I hate that shit.  I hate that shit because it didn’t happen to me.  Sour grapes.  We know graduate students who have gotten several first author papers like this even though others have done significantly more work than them (they know who they are).  Even worse, in the last 6 years I have heard some considerably more egregious requests for authorship (which I will list some other time for fun).  Why doesn’t anyone make ridiculous requests for me to be included as an author on papers I did no work on?

There have been a number of published “consensus” statements on what comprises authorship-level work including the description listed on page 2 of  But the only consensus in my opinion is that if everyone followed these guidelines, then most papers would probably have 3 authors tops.  I, in the past, have advocated including others (who may not meet such high standards of work contribution) on papers in order to foster collaboration and cementing scientific relationships.  

However, I wholeheartedly disagree with what happened to my buddy.  So I’m not sure how to reconcile this feeling with my previously expressed opinions.  I think the main point may be that it sucks to be told by someone who has been barely involved in your work to include a person, who doesn’t deserve it, as an author.  Because, at the end of the day when I have included technically unqualified authors (usually younger graduate students), others who contributed significantly on that paper had to deal with my decision.  So I guess I’m getting to a much deeper level (of bullshit?), that only those who have given the most love to the project have the moral authority to pull B.S. like adding unqualified authors.  Something about that sounds like a lot of bullshit to me but I’m sticking with it for now.  I will, however, hand it my buddy who has always been consistent in his belief that only those who have contributed significantly to a paper should be included as an author.  

So there you have it.  You can either look at it as black and white like my buddy, or you can look at it as black and white with many shades of bullshit in between, like the mudphudder.


5 Responses to “what determines authorship”

  1. 1

    Hang on.

    You were the guy advocating guest/gift authorships earlier on.

    What’s changed?

    And in answer to your question “Why doesn’t anyone make ridiculous requests for me to be included as an author on papers I did no work on?”- It’s because you aren’t important enough yet. Wait a few years…

  2. 2

    A couple of years ago, I thought about this a lot until I got tired of thinking about it.

  3. 3

    anon- I still am the guy who thinks YOU should include guest authors when it achieves YOUR goals of establishing/solidifying relationships. However, I do not think that others should be using your projects/papers to achieve their goals of establishing/solidifying relationships.

    Mi- tell me about it…

  4. 4

    I wrote a post on your blog…a blog in which you’ve discussed your research….research which you may very well be publishing…….Given my involvement in said matters, I was wondering if you would consider including me as an author on your paper. Thank you for recognizing my contribution.

  5. 5

    Andrew- My papers get published in such crappy journals that people, in the interest of their careers, tend to NOT want to be included as an author. Something to think about… :)

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