Distinguishing the Middle Authors – Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Increasingly in academia, and speaking specifically about the biological sciences, we see that publications have an author list that can even extend to a supplemental section. This is happening more and more frequently at the consortium level, but even within a given lab, more people are increasingly authors on a publication. Some might say there is a phenomena of “authorship inflation”, discussed at length by multiple sources [the second one has pretty R plots!]. But what I am really talking about is the “Problem with Founders” [the inspiration for this post], where only the first/last author, or in the case of startups, founders, really get direct credit for the work.

It is undeniable that the number of authors is steadily rising. Whether all deserve “authorship” is a contentious topic, and one I seek to sidestep altogether. I believe that instead of arguing over if some person “deserves” authorship credit, we should be asking how to better value the contributions – big and small – of each and every team member. More so now than ever before, a paper is comprised of a multi-disciplinary effort, spanning both traditional molecular biology as well as computational sciences, each requiring a particular expertise and years of training.

As a wetlab biologist turned computational biologist, I fully appreciate the work of the molecular biologist, who has to sacrifice time on the weekend, spend late nights in lab, and work long hours on things that are not fully deterministic (e.g., they might just not work). But I also can appreciate the sheer breadth of training that the computational biologist has to have – spanning mathematics, computer science, as well as biology – to be able to work “big data”. Each contributor to these team efforts brings some sort of wizardry to the table, because as the saying goes, “Together, Everyone Achieves More.”

Success is not driven alone, but rather by a team of people, who are all risking their time and efforts towards a given venture, whether it’s for a startup or a publication. The most successful teams are the ones that empower each of their members, and help them to further themselves for themselves, not just for the sake of the venture.

Journals are starting to acknowledge this problem by mandating a contributions section, and starting to push for an Author ID system that decreases the importance of citations and publications. This would ideally create a dynamic CV for each person, one that acknowledges all the team players – the coordinators, the creatives, as well as the technicians on the ground.

But again, a fancy system won’t change the culture we have developed that has led to the creation of Hollywood-level stars in both Silicon Valley and academia. We need to be able to celebrate the contributions of every member of the team, and give them ample opportunity to showcase their talents and be recognized for it. Especially now, when Ph.D.’s have ever-decreasing chances of breaking into academia, we need to change the status quo.

How do we start to do this? Speaking for the computational biologists in the room, we can start by making our workflows transparent not only to colleagues, but future employers (bonus for replicability!). Making publicly-available packages/software should be a central part of the project vision, not just a bonus. We need to argue that time spent on these aspects is time well spent, not just for the sake of the field, but also for our own sake too!

Unfortunately, work in any field, even in academia and the Ph.D. where the primary output human capital, can lack this altruism. Founders are the ones that decide the term sheets that can cut early joiners completely out (see Jobs and Kottke), and advisors have their own necks to worry about, with tenure and name on the line, and thus may redistribute your efforts accordingly. Not all advisors are like this – many great professors actually practice what they say and put students first, introducing them to others in the field, helping to transition them into (or out of) academia. More often though, they simply won’t be cognizant of how you need to distinguish yourself in an ever-increasingly competitive field.

Ultimately, the work is not about you. Let me say that again in boldface: it is not about you. Work – whether at a startup or in research – is about the work itself – at best to advance humanity, or at worst to serve someone else’s self-interests. So you have to be in charge of watching out for yourself, because if you don’t, nobody else will.


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  1. Pingback: “You are the CEO of Your Own Graduate Education” | AMEZTECH

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