Retraction Watch readers may have noticed what seems like a growing trend: Co-first authorships. While the move might seem like a way to promote equality, some researchers are worried that it’s having the opposite effect. In response, the Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI) recently created additional requirements for shared first authorship. We asked Arturo Casadevall, the first author of an editorial describing those changes, to answer a few questions.
Retraction Watch (RW): The title of your editorial, as well as the editorial itself, refers to bias. What kind of bias is of concern when it comes to co-first authors?
Arturo Casadevall (AC): The Broderick and Casadevall eLife 2019 paper showed that when authors of different gender shared the first position, that males were more likely to be listed first the author byline. Although the problem appears to be resolving itself in recent years, we were worried that bias could enter into these decisions. Hence, by asking authors to explain how the ordering was done we hope to stimulate discussions between authors that would result in fairer choices. Furthermore, we felt that if the method of author order selection was stated in the paper, that those in the second position in the byline could point to that justification during job searches, grant applications, etc. to get their due credit. We worry that individuals in the second position do not get as much credit as those in the first position even though both ‘contributed equally’.
RW: The JCI will now “will require that senior/corresponding authors state the method used in assigning the first-author position among coauthors” and “will discourage the use of the phrase ‘contributed equally.’” Can you explain the rationale for this move?
AC: The phrase ‘contributed equally’ is probably not correct for the majority of instances that it is used in manuscripts, since it is difficult to imagine two individuals contributing equally. Instead, we prefer that they state that they share the first author position, etc.
RW: In 2016, we asked our readers whether they thought it was ethical to have more than two first co-authors, and they were split exactly down the middle. You write that of the 28 papers in the first three issues of the JCI in 2019, “Twelve of these publications listed 3 or more authors as co–first/equally contributing authors, and 1 paper contained an unusually high total of 9 co–first authors.” Do you think this is a good trend?
AC: I think we have a problem in how we use the position in the author byline to give credit. In the Broderick and Casadevall eLife paper we documented two papers with 11 authors each sharing the first position. My view is that using author position to give credit is antiquated and that we need to figure out new ways of crediting contributors, especially now that many papers have many authors, each of whom could have made critical contributions to the study.
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