Authorship of scientific manuscripts is subjective. Several years ago the journal Science published an excellent article on this topic. The article includes reference to the practice by Stephen M. Kosslyn, Ph.D. (Dean of Arts and Sciences, John Lindsley Professor of Psychology, Harvard University) of assigning quantitative values to particular contributions. In his lab, the final tally determines authorship.
Although Dr. Kosslyn is in a different field of research, most of his criteria for authorship are translatable. Key points made by Dr. Kosslyn’s criteria include the following:
“Replaceability criterion”, which posits that a contribution could have been made only by one person or just as easily made by others. If one person is irreplaceable, then their contribution is more heavily weighted.
The importance of writing. Phillosophers wonder if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound? To turn a phrase, if an experiment happens and it’s not published, did it really happen? Without reporting results, bench experiments have no value. Drawing again from the succinct work of Dr. Kosslyn “If someone writes a first draft that is not used at all, this does not contribute towards points: good intentions are not enough; the question is who has contributed how much to the final product. Similarly, the sheer amount of time one has spent on the project is not relevant; competent people who work more efficiently should not be penalized.”
In order to quantify authorship the following criteria are considered:
1. Bench science. Contributions such as subcloning mutations or inducing protein expression are critical to moving experiments forward. These kinds of supportive contributions, generally by undergraduates, are rewarded with co-authorship on manuscripts. Integration assays run on agarose gels are highly important, but not technically challenging. It is expected that undergraduates working longer than two semesters in the lab can perform these experiments. In comparison, single molecule experiments are require high levels of skill and expertise. Few researchers in the world can perform these experiments (“replaceability criterion”). Thus single molecule experiments are weighted more than integration reactions which are in turn weighted more than subcloning.
2. Data analysis. Data must be analyzed as thoroughly and comprehensively as possible. It is not enough to run a gel or pass samples through a flow cell. It is absolutely critical that the data be analyzed. Correctly applied statistical analysis is necessary. It is understood that undergraduates will not be thoroughly capable of data analysis during their first year in the lab. More sophisticated analytical skills are expected as education and experience increase, as with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.
3. Writing. Preparing a manuscript is the most critical step in the process. A final draft will be sent to all co-authors. It is expected that all co-authors will provide a written confirmation that they have read the manuscript. Co-authors who do not respond to an emailed draft within 2 weeks may be removed from authorship. Co-authors may also provide suggestions for edits of the manuscript. Other lab members may also offer editing suggestions, but this effort does not necessarily warrant authorship. Preparation of the manuscript also includes generating publication quality figures. Providing information for the Methods section is associated with bench experiments and not considered an independent contribution to writing the manuscript.
Similar to the Kosslyn lab, the weighting of authorship is: bench experiments < data analysis < writing.