One issue that’s been on my mind recently is the process for deciding who gets to be acknowledged as a co-author on a research paper. It puzzles me that recognition of individuals’ contributions to a research project seems to vary according to their occupation and career stage.
I think the general consensus in my field is that for someone to be a co-author, they would have had to contribute intellectual input (through study design, data analysis or interpretation) in addition to performing experiments. This is sometimes used as justification for not including technicians, who usually don’t participate in the planning, analysis and writing stages. However, many PIs will include undergraduate students, who also usually don’t make substantive intellectual contributions, on the grounds that they need authorship for career advancement (particularly if they have expressed a desire to continue in research).
I think it is awesome that PI’s will recognize the contributions of their undergrads — and I know that many of them do this because they know it helps their grad school applications, future careers, etc. I have little doubt that this practice is well-intentioned and that it encourages and motivates young people to continue along the research path. Personally, I was chuffed to have an nth author paper freshly out of undergrad, and it certainly boosted my confidence when I was applying to grad programs. However, from what I can tell, undergraduates and technicians do the same kinds of work (the latter perhaps more efficiently and competently), so it’s unclear to me why this work is recognized with authorship for one group but not the other.
There is increasing, though not yet universal, acceptance of the notion that equal work deserves equal pay and recognition, regardless of an individual’s gender or race. So why would career stage have any bearing on authorship decisions? I can’t speak for everyone, but publications are certainly a big deal to me (even landing in the acknowledgements section of a friend’s paper gave me a warm fuzzy feeling), and I would be upset if I was not made an author on something to which I had contributed as much as, if not more, than others who were included. I would be tempted to conclude that my work was not as valued, and this is problematic. Decisions on authorship should be made in a fair and transparent manner; this benefits everyone involved and sets a good precedent in a world still striving to realize the ideals of employment equity.
Does anyone else have strong opinions on this topic, or can offer new angles that I may have missed? How do you decide who to include as a co-author?