In which they don’t make authorship like they used to

I recently had the pleasure of helping to judge the Max Perutz Science Writing Prize competition, held by the Medical Research Council in collaboration with the London Metro newspaper. The brief for aspiring young writers was to explain why their research mattered – in a manner that could catch the eye of a harried, half-asleep commuter picking up a free paper on the Underground.

Such a task is not easy, but the short-listed authors did a great job of using eye-catching imagery to snare our attention. From gleeful descriptions of “desperate volunteers” helping to implicate norovirus as a disease agent, in true Koch’s Postulate fashion, by drinking diarrhea, to snippets from history or literature, their strategies were diverse and effective. The winner, Andrew Bastawrous, a postdoc at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, wowed the judges with a snappy account of an iPhone app to aid blindness research that he was trialling in Africa.

For me, the most interesting fact I gleaned from the experience came not from the official entries, but from a speech at the celebratory drinks reception afterwards. Robin Perutz, son of the eponymous Max and himself a professor of Chemistry at York University, talked passionately about his father’s dedication and talent in communicating science to the public. This much about the man I knew, but a little revelation near the end was entirely surprising.

According to Perutz junior, his father – who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1962 with John Kendrew for shedding light on the protein structure of haemoglobin – was apparently not a fan of lab heads claiming authorship for work going on under their auspices. Simply being the team leader and bringing in the money and resources should not justify this person being listed on the paper spearheaded by one of his apprentices – if the specific ideas and experiments stemmed from PhD students or postdocs, they ought to get full credit. And in Max’s lab they did: Robin said that many seminal papers from those times simply do not bear his sire’s name.

Nowadays, in my field, such a mindset is unthinkable. Not only is the lab head always on the paper, but it is very rare indeed for this person to relinquish senior authorship. In most cases, the first author is not even allowed to be co-corresponding author, let alone the sole corresponding one. This occurs despite the fact that the lab head might not know exactly how the experiments were performed, in precise detail, or be able to provide such details or data in further correspondence. Sure, there are many cases when the lab head provides crucial intellectual contributions – but they do not always justify an automatic placement in the most prominent position on the list. And of course we’ve all seen cases where the lab head did not even earn a minor authorship, and indeed had little idea of what the paper was about.

It’s not just about the paper itself. In a bibliometric-centric world, such unearned authorship means that the lab head’s reputation grows disproportionately faster than those of his or her trainees. In the worst case, possibly rare but by no means unheard of, such a situation can lead to rather mediocre people amassing vast intellectual empires, simply because the papers produced by their team can attract more great young researchers to contribute to the snowball effect of great data, great grants and great papers.

It’s interesting to think what might happen if authorship in the life sciences one day reverted to a more Perutzian philosophy: credit where credit is truly due.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Science journalism, Scientific papers, The profession of science, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to In which they don’t make authorship like they used to

  1. rpg says:

    Max Perutz was a wise old bird, and he is sadly missed.

    (In a semi-related proto-rant, Bastawrous’s winning piece is in today’s Metro. But can I find any hint of it online, or indeed *any* science on their website? Can I buggery.)

  2. Grant says:

    Max wrote a few ‘popular science’ books. (From memory one title is You should have made me mad sooner.) There is also Georgina Ferry’s autobiography of him, Max Perutz and the Secret of Life.

    Max had the office opposite mine when I started as a student at the LMB. I had no idea his son was a Professor! Great to learn that.

    I’ve been known to say to some local professors that I feel a professor’s job to enable the success of others – they’ve already succeeded, as it were, and that their further success should be the success of those under them. I can’t help think Max captured that thought and used it in running the LMB.

    Peter Lawrence wrote about the issue of authorship credit ten years ago, I added some thoughts of my own, basically that the authorship credits might be split to recognise separately running a laboratory and hosting the work as opposed to the academic side of the credit. There are some who, while not especially remarkable scientist, run excellent labs. For that they deserve full credit. They do have to keep bringing the money in, which in many respects “demands” that they have publications. That, would suggest it’s the academic credit system lying at the heart of this.

    I rather like when senior authors who have hosted the work, but other’s have really been the team actually running the work, opt to be second-to-last author. It reflects well on the senior author to my mind and allows mid-career scientists under them be the last author – i.e. hold the spot that usually denotes the group leader.

  3. Grant says:

    Just checked – the book I was thinking of is I wish I’d made you angry earlier. (I knew I should have checked first…!)

  4. Grant, I have run across lab heads who feel exactly that, that their success is best measured by how their protégés do…and lab heads who are just the opposite, who do not help their trainees, who even actively hinder them in some sort of misplaced paranoia that it will harm their empire to even concede a millimeter’s credit. I think it might be a reflection of that person’s self-confidence. The less self-confident, the more power-grabbing they become. I suppose that Max Perutz was quite comfortable in himself and his abilities and talents.

  5. KristiV says:

    Another trend that runs counter to the Perutzian philosophy is when the mentor of a student or postdoc, who has contributed data to a manuscript originating from a different laboratory, claims authorship. This occurs regardless of whether there is any grant support or intellectual contribution to the research or manuscript – I suppose that some lab heads might argue that their grants support the postdoc’s salary, therefore “all your research time are belong to us.”

    I think a few journals once listed authors in alphabetical order of surnames, regardless of contribution or academic rank. J. Physiology was one such, I think (but I may be misremembering).

  6. Grant says:

    Good point. I suppose we could say Max should have been comfortable with his abilities and talents! I guess there are people who simply never feel confident in themselves. Then there are the lab heads who micro-manage – not quite being able to fully ‘trust’ others can just go and do their thing. I know a few labs where I suspect they’ll never have any mid-career workers as a consequence.

  7. You may be interested in a workshop held earlier this year that addressed various authorship and attribution issues and the limitations and problems associated with traditional practices. Alternative approaches of contributorship and attribution were explored and recommendations proposed, some of which are being taken forward. The report (declaration: I was involved in the workshop and the report) was published last week and is freely available via the workshop website:

    IWCSA Report (2012). Report on the International Workshop on Contributorship and Scholarly Attribution, May 16, 2012. Harvard University and the Wellcome Trust.

    It also covers the damaging effect of authorships disputes (p4) – which seem to be on the rise and can have serious repercussions for all those involved – and offers some simple guidelines (p6) for research groups and collaborative projects to help avoid authorship/contributorship problems, and which might make it easier to end up with fairer authorship credit.

  8. Stephen Moss says:

    Then of course there are the journals that require authors to provide details of their respective contributions. But is that enough to mitigate against lab heads acquiring unearned authorships?

  9. Stephen – it’s not enough, because I’ve seen this circumvented quite neatly. All an honorary author has to do is to tick the “made significant intellectual contributions” or “helped prepare the manuscript”. They aren’t tangible enough to call a person out.

    Irene, thanks very much for the information and links! I wish you luck with that.

    Grant – ah yes, the micromanager who won’t delegate. It’s my least favorite lab head phenotype.

  10. Frank says:

    rpg – MRC Comms tweeted earlier today with the URL of the essay at the Metro site and on the MRC blog.

  11. rpg says:

    Thanks Frank. It’s not linked from the Metro proper anywhere, is it?

  12. Stephen Moss says:

    Jenny – but if an ‘honorary’ author selected the ‘made significant intellectual contributions’ option, when they had in fact done next to nothing, then wouldn’t this make all the authors complicit in the deceit? After all, for most papers (expect those gene bashing studies with hundreds of authors), most of the authors would have a good idea as to who has done what.

  13. It still happens. And what’s a junior author to do, blow the whistle? That’s just not going to happen. I think there is a mentality that “in our discipline’s culture, we are allowed to put people on paper for doing no work, because that’s how it’s done in our field, and we’re not going to let journals interfere in our cultural norms – they have no right to control our authorship culture, so they force us to lie, but that’s their problem.”

  14. rpg says:

    I certainly couldn’t have done anything when I was bumped to second author from first thanks to an unscrupulous HoD (and feeble boss).

    More details coming to a blog post near you… soon.

  15. I am reminded of an Oxford professor whose papers I once needed to read, who at one point published a single-author Nature paper (closely following a single-author EMBO J. paper). I always wondered who had been left off, but I suspect it was laboratory technicians that either he, or someone else, deemed to have had no significant “intellectual input”.

    I am pleased to say that I have never been an author on such a paper.

  16. KristiV wrote:

    “I think a few journals once listed authors in alphabetical order of surnames, regardless of contribution or academic rank. J. Physiology was one such, I think (but I may be misremembering).”

    You’re right about J Physiol, Kristi, but they abandoned the practise around the end of the 80s. My first paper was in there (1987, alphabetical) but my later ones in the early 90s had any author order, like other journals.

    Alphabetical author order had its own oddities. I remember one PhD student we collaborated with who was from a country where people tended to have multiple family names. When I first met him (mid 80s) he told us his surname, which was after his supervisors in the alphabet. By the late 80s he was publishing under a quite different surname, which interestingly preceded his supervisor name’s (the same supervisor) in the alphabetical order…

  17. In economics, where there’s alphabetical name ordering in publications, it’s been shown that those with earlier surname initials are significantly more likely to receive tenure and other professional success. This ‘alphabetical discrimination’ also affects author behaviour in a number of ways.
    What’s in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success

  18. How utterly bizarre! Thanks for that fascinating fact.

  19. Probably off topic, but putting the phrase “author order was determined by” into Google brings up some amusing hits. My favourite so far is:

    On Southbound Ease and Northbound Fees: Literal Consequences of the Metaphorical Link Between Vertical Position and Cardinal Direction. Leif D. Nelson and Joseph P. Simmons, Journal of Marketing Research, vol. XLVI, forthcoming.

    “The authors contributed equally to this work and author order was determined by geographical latitude.” 😀

  20. cromercrox says:

    Those of us at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning with N often ponder the problem, and have introduced a mandatory section where authors must list their contributions. There is no way we can enforce this, but is there anything people think we can do to ensure that work is attributed more honestly?

  21. Grant says:


    See the link in my first comment here for one now dated idea. I’ve grown ten years older in the meantime, so I need to go back and revisit if my thoughts on it have changed. I’ll try write something on my blog. In honesty in part because I’m a little fed up with people opposing me in negative ways in discussions elsewhere on line. I’ve even got a guy who claims to have 40 years experience in science writing opposing that on-line science writing (i.e. via blogs) is worth reading. I offered a polite explanation of why I though they were worth reading and got—his word—‘swipes’ back. Really strange as I can’t see the positive value of doing that to me even if he opposed my view. In the meantime, I’m off to read a print (!) newspaper in the late sun – where I’ll probably find some daft story that annoys me! 🙂

  22. Grant says:

    Excuse from after the third sentence on in my last – in fact if you’d delete from the fourth sentence on (inclusive), that’d be fine by me.

  23. scientist_me says:

    On a related note, when submitting a (many-author) paper to Science a couple of years ago, every co-author had to state what their contribution(s) were to the manuscript across various categories (manuscript preparation, data analysis, etc), and estimate a percentage that reflected their share of the overall contribution for that category. At the end, I don’t think there was a single category in which the overall percentage totalled less than about 500%! i.e. there is a tendency to overestimate our individual contribution relative to that of others/the whole.

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