In Defense of (Some) Large Author Lists

While I was convalescing, a minor kerfuffle erupted over ‘courtesy authors’ on scientific papers, when the British Medical Journal announced its new rules for authorship inclusion:

The uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to medical journals state that authorship credit should be based only on substantial contribution to:

  • conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data
  • drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content
  • and final approval of the version to be published.

All these conditions must all be met. Participation solely in the acquisition of funding or the collection of data does not justify authorship.

We want authors to assure us that all authors included on a paper fulfil the criteria of authorship. In addition we want assurance that there is no one else who fulfils the criteria but has not been included as an author.

This bothers me since it fails to comprehend that certain areas of biology will require large author lists (e.g., sequencing 1,000 human genomes). BMJ has effectively ruled out publishing genomics papers, although I think Dr. Isis is correct about their reasoning:

I suspect that the BMJ is trying to deal mainly with a very limited problem that is specific to a subgroup of physician ass clowns doing large-scale clinical trials where the staff and director of every data collection center are listed as authors. Having participated in that sort of trial, I can tell you that I had a minimal role in the design, no real role in the interpretation, and no role in the crafting of the manuscript. We were basically a fee for service site. I collected data and sent it back to the main study center. It would have been wrong for me to have demanded authorship there, yet the center director whose contributions were equally minimal was adamant that he be listed. Some clinical trials are released with copious numbers of authors.

Where I disagree with Dr. Isis is this (note: I was not involved with the human genome project):

Need I remind anyone of this?

Figure 1:A publication from the Human Genome Project. A partiallist of authors required a full page in Nature to publish.

Just the partial authorship list of the above paper had more than 250 authors. The full list had to be published in a supplement. So, I conclude that in the face of such shenanigans, the addition of a sixth author to a manuscript isn’t doing dick to the future of science.

If we really think large author lists on a $1.3 billion project (I’ll get to that in a bit) are inappropriate, then I’m not sure we’re ready for 21st century science*. I’ve been involved with ‘big science’ and it’s not just fee for service work. It is, however, compartmentalized. It has to be. And the BMJ doesn’t get that.

But there’s also a misunderstanding of what the authorship on these large papers means. To generate data at this scale–or more accurately, to figure out how to build the infrastructure and to do the systems engineering to create this data generation factory–is itself research. Very applied research, but research nonetheless. While I won’t vouch for every author, in the large projects I’ve been involved with, most people weren’t courtesy authors, they were deeply involved in the project, and not in a fee-for-service way (developing rigorous methods, high-throughput systems, analyzing preliminary/control data, etc.). Hell, in the Human Genome Project, figuring out how to get the raw data to NCBI in a standardized format isn’t trivial.

Finally, there’s the funding issue. If you publish a paper, the ‘sentinel’ paper for a project that cost millions, never mind hundreds of millions, of dollars and you have a handful of authors, then someone spent the money poorly (or has all of their lab equipment made out of platinum). So few people involved with so much expenditure? To me, that’s failure unless you really are dealing with massive amounts of incredibly routine, yet expensive data collection (and if that’s the case, someone should figure out how to do it cheaper).

By the way, I’ll argue with Dr. Isis about authorship, but never shoes. I’m not that stupid….

*Does anyone really think that we will continue to prioritize the research equivalent of a single loom making homespun, especially in light of the massive structural labor problem within biology? Most cars aren’t made in individual garages by craftsmen either.

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4 Responses to In Defense of (Some) Large Author Lists

  1. Isis the Scientist says:

    What does that mean though, Mike? To be “deeply involved?” Did they meet the criteria for authorship outlined by the ICMJE?

  2. Isis,

    The guidelines aren’t clear, but if this is the mark (note the italics):

    Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.

    then it’s not clear to me that a lot of people who did work would be included–lots of people in these projects might not hit #2 (#1 & #3, yes). If I read the guidelines correctly, most people would not be on the paper, even though they were critical to the data generation and analysis. You simply can’t have ~200 people simultaneously writing a paper (I think?)

  3. Isis the Scientist says:

    I suppose that’s their point in the attempt to limit large author lists.

  4. Sure, but all those people were integral to the work, even if they weren’t writing (actively developing and performing new analyses, etc.). The guidelines simply don’t seem to apply to large projects where many people make contributions. On one such project I spent much of two years of my life, and I sure as hell earned more than an acknowledgement.

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