Sharing the coin of the realm: How one journal hopes new authorship rules will cut down on bias

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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8 thoughts on “Sharing the coin of the realm: How one journal hopes new authorship rules will cut down on bias”

  1. In mathematics, the convention is that all authors are listed alphabetically. This is understood within the profession and can easily be explained to the college committee when Prof. Zymurgy is coming up for promotion.

  2. Multiple co-authorship can create more problems and abuse. For instance, a paper is based on sole work of a PhD candidate or postdoc fellow. Obviously, she/he must be first author and then the thesis mentor as second author. BUT, that mentor needs a new PhD student having a first-author paper to guarantee a fund. So, the paper will be published with two first-authors, one with 100% contribution, working hard 24/7 for a couple of years, the other one with 0% contribution. That mentor may decide to add the name of department’s chair or faculty’s dean as co-author for political purposes. If the chair and dean are made happy only with first co-authorship, then there will be three first co-authors.
    I experienced this issue during my graduate studies. So, this system will likely be abused in this or other ways. Then, later there will be confrontations on first co-authorship when the real first author (PhD candidate, post doc fellow) are under force to be silent. While the present system of having a small section as “Author Contributions” in the papers can also be abused, but it may result fewer problems latter and less chance of abuse.

    1. To me, a PI with a first author paper is a major red flag, either reflecting an inability to delegate or a compulsive need to hog credit.

      Anyway, the real problem in the scenarios you’ve described are the adding of authors (anywhere in the author list) who contributed absolutely nothing to the paper. Their place (first, last, middle) is just icing on the cake.

      For what it’s worth, I see nothing wrong with co-first authorships for people who actually did a lot of work on the paper. Although it’s unlikely that two or more people did exactly equal amounts of work, it’s very common for two or more people to do very similar amounts of work (difficult to distinguish in magnitude without splitting hairs or making shaky subjective judgements) that were all essential for the paper. The sharing of first-author position is effectively an acknowledgment that all of them contributed approximately equally large amounts of work. Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is when one of the co-first authors has a slight edge, they usually get to be first-first author. I guess they all contributed equally, but some contributed more equally than others 😉

      1. I agree with you anonimus.

        We know only to well that authorship criteria is abused in a number of instances, Another author issue not mentioned is leaving a significant contributor (or junior researcher) from the author list. As far as the senior PI listed as 1st author, that should not be a problem provided the PI did the donkey work, ie conceived the study, major input in analysis, drafting most of the manuscript, etc. However, many PIs, myself included, are happy for an emerging researcher to be listed as 1st author. However, I expect that junior to extensively write the draft article, never mind that the senior PI extensively rewrites it for clarity and intellectual content. Generally thaat PI will be the corresponding senior author. Again I do not have any problems in crediting joint 1st authors if they contributed roughly equally, even though in divergent different areas.

  3. “Obviously, she/he must be first author and then the thesis mentor as second author. ”

    No. It is unethical that a mentor is automatically a second author for a paper of a PhD candidate or a postdoc fellow. You know, there has to be some work also. ICMJE.

  4. Wow. The comments are even more interesting than the article. More, more!

    The whole incentive system in academia is so broken, and the ramifications of pouring hundreds of billions of dollars of government (taxpayer) money into the top of it, producing so much irreproducible research, is entirely predictable from a Public Choice Theory perspective. Kudos to Retraction Watch for digging in to topics like this.

  5. I’ll suggest a random name generator where you put all of the co-author names in and a random list comes out. I was going to say that the corresponding author should be placed last but then there is the problem of papers with more than one corresponding author. So, just list them all randomly. A footnote should be added to indicate that the authorship was assigned randomly.

    I suppose I was very naive when I was a grad student – I did not even know that authorship order was a “thing” until years after I graduated. That was the 80’s in Chemistry. Maybe it wasn’t a thing then, I really don’t know or care, but things have clearly changed.

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