Writing Tips: An Authorship Policy that Maximizes Collaboration

(This post is authored by Eleazar Eskin.)

Assigning authorship and determining the order of authors on scientific papers is an issue that every research lab deals with. Authorship ranking can be a frequent source of conflict among members of a research lab. In many labs, multiple students involved in a project compete for first- or high-ranking authorship throughout the life of the project. Competition for authorship in a lab culture lacking a clearly-defined policy disincentives students from obtaining other lab members’ help, because the project leader may ultimately lose their first-authorship position to the students they recruit for help. These issues can reduce the quality of inter- and intra-lab communication and collaboration. Ultimately, authorship conflict can reduce lab productivity, create lots of bad feelings, and, in some cases, poison the work environment.

Here we share our labs’ authorship policy. Of course, the actual authorship of papers published in our lab reflects the amount of work and contributions that each author made to the project.  However, during the course of the project, there are ample opportunities for different members of the group to contribute more or less than anticipated. Acknowledging flexibility in contribution amount and authorship shapes the final ranking and achieves several other goals. First, our authorship policy is designed to encourage inter- and intra-lab collaboration, increase the overall productivity of the lab, expand training opportunities for students in the lab, and improve the overall productivity of each individual member of the lab.

In our lab, we use the following key principles to assign authorship:

  • No last minute changes. It takes months (if not years!) to complete a research project and finish writing a paper describing the process. Many authorship conflicts arise just before paper submission, which can be a hectic process even without disagreement. In our lab, we never make last minute changes on the eve of submission.

    Instead, we explicitly address author-order issues after the paper is submitted. The revision process always requires more work, so there is plenty of time to resolve conflicts in a calm and constructive way. We often contact journals to change the author order after submission of original and revised manuscripts, and we have even changed the order of authorship on accepted papers just before submitting a camera-ready version. The advantage of this policy is that we remove the majority of drama in authorship conflicts.

  • Each student has their own first-author projects. Competition for high authorship ranking is inevitable in academia, where one’s publication record has a crucial impact on their career. In addition, graduate students in many programs are required to publish a specific number of first-author papers in order to complete their degrees.

    In our lab, each student has clearly defined projects that lead to first-author papers. Except in exceptional circumstances, such as leaving the lab before finishing their project, the student will be the first author of the paper. Other students in the lab are welcome to join the project and contribute (with the first-author student’s permission). In this case, they have authorship rights but cannot dislodge the project leader’s first-author position. With the authorship outcome established in advance, each student involved has clear expectations and can budget their involvement in the project accordingly.

    The advantage of this policy is that we no longer have students competing for first-author positions. Students are genuinely encouraged to collaborate and obtain help from peers in their projects. In addition, junior students often recruit senior students to help with their first projects. This is a win-win scenario; senior students benefit from the mentoring experience, and the advanced graduate students’ research experience often substantially speeds up completion of the junior students’ project. In addition, encouraging senior students to help with all lab papers also lightens my mentorship load and frees up time for my research, writing, and teaching.

  • First-author students help determine the author order. Lack of a clear protocol for determining authorship ranking throughout the course of a project can lead to conflicts as publication nears. In our lab, we create a culture of granting authorship-assigning agency to the first author student, who has substantial input into the author order and is responsible for monitoring their co-authors’ productivity.

    During the course of the project, the first-author student is responsible for gently nudging them to contribute if a student co-author has contributed relatively little time to the project. If a co-author has contributed a tremendous amount, the first author can decide that the two students should share first author. The advantage of this policy is that the first-author student has a lot of ownership over their projects and is responsible for ensuring, over the course of the project, that the workload is split to reflect the final authorship ranking.

  • Students are recognized for pulling more than their anticipated weight. Many very talented students often substantially contribute to multiple projects in the lab, including the other students’ papers in which they are not the first author.

    In our lab, we greatly encourage this behavior. I explain to the students that I will notice their additional investment of time and effort, and they will be recognized for this in letters of recommendation that I will write for them. I also explain to students interested in taking on extra project workloads that the experience and recognition—regardless of their specific authorship ranking on each project—will provide for them many future opportunities and collaborations.

Our policy leads to a highly collaborative environment where each student who graduates from the lab co-authors a paper with the majority of the other students in the lab. Senior students gain invaluable experience mentoring junior students through the paper writing process. When they graduate from the lab, my students are very generous with credit and authorship to others involved in the lab. This makes me proud of them as both scientists and people.

Even with this policy, I would say that every six months to one year we have an authorship conflict among lab members that I must get involved in. In part, this is because authorship is so discrete that, even with the best intentions, the constraints of a ranked list sometimes fail to completely reflect the individuals’ contributions. Using joint first authors and joint corresponding authors can help with this issue, but jointly-authoring still may not introduce sufficient complexity to accurately reflect the efforts and contributions of all individuals involved. However, the collaborative culture of our lab, as well as our collaborative relationships with other labs, usually helps us resolve these disputes in short time.

About Lana Martin

i write and teach.