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Author Order Matters

From the We-Already-Knew-That department: A new study published in EMBO Reports confirms that being a middle author on a paper lessens your stature dramatically, even if the paper is published in a prestigious journal. "Our survey results showed that author names appearing near the
beginning of the list of authors are perceived to have contributed more
to the project," wrote Jonathan Wren of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, first author on the paper, in a press release. Senior authors–those listed last–tend to maintain
their standing no matter how many authors are listed in the byline.

In case you were wondering, the authors least likely to get credit for the new study–those listed in the middle–are Katarzyna Z. Kozak of the Department of Internal Medicine, Exempla Saint Joseph Hospital, Denver, Colorado, Kathryn R. Johnson of the Department of Dermatology, Sara J. Deakyne the Department of Pediatrics, and Lisa M. Schilling of the Department of Medicine–all of University of Colorado, Aurora, Colorado. The last, senior, author is Robert P. Dellavalle of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, University of Colorado, Denver, Colorado.

Though I obviously am in no position to question the author order on this paper, I can’t resist pointing out that the first and last authors are both men and all the middle authors are women…

…which may go part way towards explaining why (from the same issue of the same journal):

Women are more likely to quit at the postdoc to principal investigator transition

and how

Traditional Gender Roles Hold Back Female Scientists

2 comments on “Author Order Matters”

  1. Jonathan Wren says:

    Yes, well, I realize that the press release sounds like a “we-already-knew-that” sort of statement, and I tried to get it more accurate before release, but the PR department insists on making it “immediately accessible to the layperson”, so some of the details are blurred in the interests of keeping things simple. But the study itself does outline several things that were not known. Specifically, it quantifies *how much* the middle authors are perceived to contribute to the study. We are all familiar that the first & last are “key” positions, but nobody so far has quantified just how much less credit the other authors get. Also important is how author inflation affects these perceptions – if the senior author adds a 4th author to a 3-author paper where you’re in the middle, how does that affect you? Turns out quite a bit. Finally, nobody ever says how important the corresponding author position is – it’s often an afterthought. Turns out that it is very important in terms of promotion & tenure committee perceptions – if the last author is not also corresponding, their perceived contribution drops substantially.
    Just in the interests of disclosure, I’m the first author of the paper.

  2. Jim Austin says:

    It’s a pleasure to have you comment on our blog.
    And by the way, in my book there’s nothing wrong with research that confirms what people feel they already knew. I did not intend that as a slight.
    Your observation about corresponding authors is interesting, in that I’ve always assumed (without the evidence that your study provided) that this was the most important position of all. First and last is mere symbolism–but the corresponding author is the person assigned real responsibility.
    Thanks for your good work and your contribution to our Web site.
    Jim Austin, Editor
    Science Careers

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