Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Whodunit? Navigating authorship

I'm in the midst of prepping and mapping out several publications that arise from various collaborative projects and I'm trying to figure out authorship order. Ugh. In several cases, I'm doing the bulk (and in some cases, all) of the study design, data analysis, stats, and writing so I'm obviously the first author, right? Weeelll....not so fast. While I'm still building a record of first-authored papers, my mentors are alerting me to the need for some last-authored papers prior to tenure, to demonstrate my position as an independent researcher. Then what do I do with all the various collaborators, students, former mentors, current benefactors, etc. in the middle? Yikes. And it's difficult to see the distinction when the "person who did the bulk of the work" (traditionally first author slot) and "senior person" (traditionally last author slot) are one and the same.

I'm learning that a lot of this is discipline specific and what is conventional in anthropology may be quite a bit different from the norm in the biomedical or health sciences, where several of us publish (and where I make my current institutional home). Adding to the confusion, your local promotion and tenure committee may have an idea about what authorship order signifies that differs from what you and your discipline think. What I'm hearing from my mentors is that disciplinary conventions are fine to follow, but that I should be prepared to defend those decisions, both in my own voice and also in the letters from outside tenure referrees. I think a good start is to write up a "who did what" document for each publication - some journals *require* such a statement - and tuck it away in your tenure file, so you can easily refer to this when the time comes. Best practice is to have a conversation with collaborators at the project's inception regarding authorship rather than wait until you're about to submit and find out there's a dispute.

Maybe this link will help us figure it out. While it is specifically geared toward Nature journals, the advice and the associated links are generic enough to be broadly applicable. See also this, this, and this for additional guidelines.


  1. This is a really interesting issue that there is generally no formal mentorship on and a junior scholar is generally at the mercy of the senior scholars. I talk about this a little bit in my class on the anthropology of science - there are informal cultural guidelines but little else.

  2. Totally agree re: the lack of mentorship on this and so many other career development issues. I think in anthropology this is particularly complicated by the territoriality and "ownership" of research sites & populations. Given the longterm & field nature of so much of our research (studying primates and humans takes FOREVER), study sites and the attendant relationships and funding parcels can take a very long time to build. It is not always wise for a junior investigator to branch off so independently that they leave senior folks off the authorship chain, as this could risk future access.

  3. You may also wish to consult this:

    Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals: Ethical Considerations in the Conduct and Reporting of Research: Authorship and Contributorship