Co-first bullshit

Aug 25 2016 Published by under academia

Academic credit is based on publications. This is not news to anyone, of course. Most papers (in biomedicine) have more than one author, which means that at some point there has to be a decision on what order to put the authors in. There is a standard sort of rule (again, in biomedical-type fields, other fields have their own conventions):

First author - the student/fellow/trainee that did most of the work.
Middle author(s) - people who helped out with experiments or contributed unpublished reagents, etc.
Last author - the PI of the group. In general, the person that you direct correspondence to regarding the paper.

For us biomed types, you get the most "credit" for a paper if you are the First author or the Last author. First author credit gets you a good postdoc, maybe a PD fellowship, and hopefully a job. Last authorship gets you tenure and grants. Middle authors get ... a pat on the back, a high-five for collaborating/playing well with others, a line on your CV (which can be a big deal).

Sometimes it is not that easy to decide what order the authors will be listed. Maybe two labs collaborated and one grad student from each group did a lot of work. Maybe a new postdoc picked up and finished up a project that had been started  by a different lab member.  Maybe you have a conjoined twin. Whatever. Discussions and wrangling about order of authors can get nasty, because we all recognize the importance of being First or Last author. Some folks have tried to get around this by designating Co-First authors. Maybe this placates someone who thinks they should get more credit. That's crap, as DrugMonkey and CPP, and probably a million others have said before.

The problem is, this is bullshit because there can only be ONE First first author. The second co-first author is NOT first. This came up on twitter today when I noticed a tweep proposing SWITCHING the order of co-first authors on a CV. This is a BIG NO-NO!! Yes, I understand that if the co-first authors were really equal contributors that it wouldn't matter. But that is not the reality. And if I read your CV and look you up on Pubmed and the author list has been changed, then I'm going to look at your application like CPP - with extreme prejudice. Maybe not everyone has the same view...but do you want to take the chance that your CV gets trashed? Don't do it.


24 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    But if it is truly equal.....

  • physioprof says:

    How the everloving motherfucke is this still a question?????

    • gerty-z says:

      apparently, the young scientists aren't getting the message

    • drugmonkey says:

      because glam lab PIs continue to scam extra effort out of listed-second(throughfifth) authors by creating a culture that convinces them it is just as good. that's why.

  • TheGrinch says:

    I had a junior colleague who was a co-first author and he switched the author order on his CV. I picked it up when he sent me his proposal for an informal review, and told him precisely what you said in the last paragraph. The order of authors for a published paper is a matter of bibliographic record, and we can't change, and all that. Not sure whether he listened to the advice, or was he successful in pulling the trick...

  • AcademicLurker says:

    In the past over at Drugmonkey's place, I've suggested that PDFs could be made to randomly switch the order of the first 2 authors every time they're opened. There's no serious technical barrier, and if co first authorship really does mean equal contributions, then it makes sense.

    • Zuska says:

      Seriously - if there is such an entity as co-first author, and it means something more than a semantic trick to placate the second author who had as much right to be first author as the person who politically maneuvered into first co-first author space, then 2nd co-first author has every right to list the paper as a first author paper on a cv. If we as a scientific culture have created this thing, but not the mechanism for dealing with it it in understanding it on someone's cv, then boo on us, not the poor slobs trying to claim what they were told was theirs to have.
      How is it fair to hold it against someone?
      If co-first author is not _clearly_ indicated on the print or PDF document then it isn't in fact a real thing and is a polite political fiction - or, should I say, a rude political fiction.

      Some days ya just gotta be glad you're well out of the whole crazy game.

      • The mechanism for dealing with it on someone's CV is to put a notation indicating that you were deemed co-first-author, not falsifying the author order.

        When I am co-first-author but listed first, I still put an asterisk after both myself and my co-first author.

  • Agree 100%. The one who writes the paper gets to be first author. In practice, the co-first author is credited as middle author+ at best.

    I have yet to have a co-first author paper in my lab. While we do collaborative work, when multiple people are making major contributions, we try to arrange things so that we can publish multiple manuscripts (so that all major contributors get a chance to be first author). More often, there is an obvious first author (the main driver of the project), with others collaborating on the work and receiving credit as middle authors.

    Unfortunately for my theory colleagues, the norm in my field is for the experimentalist to be first author, even with equal contributions. In cases where the theory is the lead and we provide support for their work, they get to be first.

  • becca says:

    I think it's fine for profs to look at CVs this way.
    It's also fine for profs to have papers they have authored (last, or otherwise) with co-first authors.

    What should be grounds for tarring and feathering is for a PI to talk their trainee authors into co-first authorship because they are too cowardly to deal with the lab conflict that will result if they insist on a single first author. If you think second listed co-first authors contributions are sub-par, you have an ethical obligation to tell all coauthors you feel that way.

  • Jaws says:

    What I find terribly amusing about this is that the publishing industries (there's more than one) don't follow these "rules" at all. Examples:
    * In trade publishing (including trade imprints of university presses, such as Beknap/Harvard) the first name that appears on a book's author list is the one believed to be the biggest seller.
    * In general-periodical publishing, it's even moreso: Frequently, authors beyond the second author will get thanks in a footnote at best.
    * In most other academic fields, the author whose name is most likely to be recognizable to editors comes first, as a way of getting toward the top of the slush pile (in law, Mark Lemley's name comes before that of his coauthors, even if those would be the "first" author under the rubric gerty-z describes above); but
    * In some other fields, author name-order is alphabetical by surname, or
    * In yet other fields — especially military studies/science (depending on how cynical I am today) and international relations — it's highest-title-to-lowest-title, regardless of contribution

    My ultimate point being that these sorts of battles just reinforce that the politics of academia are so vicious primarily because the stakes are so low. If the order-of-author-credit really does matter to those reviewing files for hiring, for tenure, or for promotion... we're putting the wrong people into the review positions.

  • JL says:

    How about when talking about paper productivity?

    A young colleague of mine was complaining recently of having been bypassed for an achievement award. He was upset that he had a Glamour paper as first author, whereas the winner did not.

    Later I looked up this dude's CV and he is co-first listed second (of three co-firsts!!). When I saw this I felt like he had exaggerated his position. Did he?

    • gerty-z says:

      It's hard to say. There is a lot that goes into evaluating, but I don't think that counting Glamour pubs is really that good of a metric. The fact that dude is upset that his Glamour co-first pubs didn't count for as much as he thought they "should" doesn't make me feel sad for him

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    The honest treatment of second-listed "co-first" is that it signals a more significant contribution than an ordinary second author, but less significant than the first-listed "co-first".

  • ecologist says:

    I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the statements, required by some (an increasing number?) of journals, that tell who did what on the paper. In any field that involves collaboration by people with multiple skill sets, there is no way to distinguish contributions by authorship order alone. In cases where the evaluation involves a detailed examination of the publication (e.g., for promotion), these statements could be more useful than a co-first author statement. But I think they would have to be more explicit and detailed than they usually are. Has anyone ever seen these statements used seriously?

    • gerty-z says:

      The statements are fine but...for many (all?) "evaluations" the CV just has the authors and not any statement. I guess I've never really seen the statements used seriously. For biomed, YMMV.

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