The Excitable Scientist

Mostly cheerful, sometimes snarky commentary on life science research and its broader impacts

Unequal recognition for equal work? May 16, 2013

Filed under: academia,publishing — excitablescientist @ 11:05 pm

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?


4 Responses to “Unequal recognition for equal work?”

  1. Steve Coyne Says:

    You say that equal work deserves equal pay *and* equal recognition – two distinct kinds of compensation. So if we insist that technicians get publication credit, perhaps we should also insist that undergraduates be paid at technician salaries?

    • Anonymous Says:

      Eric mentioned once that a co-author was brought on to write – and only to write – a paper he’d worked on because they were trying for Nature Cell. The writer was not involved at all in the science, but their expertise in writing for high profile journals was apparently necessary to make the paper sexy enough. Weird.

      Also, undergrads are useless and should be paid nothing but the left over fish food.

    • I knew that someone would bring this up, and I’m not surprised it’s you, Steve! You’re absolutely right that I shouldn’t be using those two interchangeably.

      The salary issue is a thorny one. Co-op students and recent graduates working in academic labs typically get paid minimum wage with no benefits. The reasoning used to justify this is that the work provides valuable training for the person and what they get out of the job is more than just the monetary compensation. Permanent techs are paid much better (and are often unionized), in line with having more experience and greater responsibilities. I don’t think this system is completely fair and definitely balk at the idea of paying somebody with a bachelor’s degree in science the absolute lowest salary permissible by law; however, many PIs would argue that funding is a zero-sum game and in order to maximize productivity, we need to minimize spending on salaries… problematic on many levels, and probably merits a post of its own. I think it makes sense to have salaries be commensurate with experience, but the current system exaggerates the differences enormously, effectively creating two classes of employees: temporary workers, who are very cheap labour, and permanent staff, who are actually compensated at a reasonable rate.

      To me, the recognition question is different because unlike funding, authorship is not a zero-sum game. There is no disincentive to adding authors to a paper; nobody loses out by including deserving individuals who made substantive contributions. I see this as low-hanging fruit and an easily implementable change.

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