Negotiating Authorship

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Authorship disputes are not uncommon. Even when there are no actual disputes over who did what on a project, there may be lots of authorship resentments. That’s because a lot of folks — by no mere coincidence, junior scientists more often — end up not getting as much credit as they think they deserve when a paper comes out.

I’ve never been involved in an authorship dispute — at least not to my knowledge. I was once on a paper with many many people and other authors had concerns about the sequence and why it wasn't entirely alphabetical, but I didn't pay much attention.

There is no way that your position in a series of names can appropriately represent what you actually did for a paper. The way we assign credit in science is outdated. Careers depend on the credit associated with authorship, and with the exception of single-authored papers, any list of authors is bound to be unfair to someone. (And, come to think of it, I bet many single-authored papers probably have credit disputes, too.)

But this system is the one we have for the time being. So if you want credit for your work, then authorship is where you get it.

One way to minimize disputes is to have a conversation about authorship and roles upfront and negotiate an agreement before any serious work happens.

Negotiation sometimes gets a bad rep. A lot of people think it means fighting for as much as you can get, and then seeing who wins the argument. Certainly, if you approach negotiation positionally, it can end badly, perhaps for both sides.

Negotiation is more successful as a principled discussion, in which both parties create an arrangement that mutually meets their interests. (The 1981 classic, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, describes principled negotiation and explains why it is better than the positional kind. The book is a valuable read even if you don't have anything that you plan to negotiate immediately.) You and your collaborators need to discuss your mutual interests as well as how the work will be conducted and what authorship will look like. It's a bad idea to start working on a project without this agreement. If you decide the authorship arrangement won't be worth the amount of trouble you would be putting in, drop out of the project.

Of course, there are imbalances of power in any collaboration. Powerful people may attempt to take more credit than they are due, and less powerful people can get the other end of that stick. The negotiations may be unfair, or subsequent unfair decisions may alter a negotiated agreement. Upfront negotiations can't eliminate the possibility of malfeasance but can establish a clear arrangement, so that any violation can be clearly documented.

A case in point is one of my own paper I'm working on now. It has about five authors:

  • Me, as the one who came up with the idea and got the grant.
  • A grad student in another lab who collected some samples.
  • The PI for that student’s lab.
  • My student who did lab work for the samples and some bibliographic work.
  • And a researcher who did some of the analyses.

There are probably several different authorship sequences that we could propose, all of which might seem fair. We found one that we all agreed to. If any one of us ends up having to do more work than that person initially agreed to do, then we can renegotiate.

It's OK to change things by mutual agreement as a project progresses. For example, I’m working on another paper with a coauthor. The project was my idea, and I did the labwork and the fieldwork, I got the funding, and I was going to write it up. I brought in a collaborator, who has the expertise to analyze the data in a particular way. As the project evolved, we learned new cool things, and decided to expand the scope, and my collaborator spent a lot more time doing more analyses, building the figures, and assembling the results. At that point, I mentioned, "You should be first author on this." He definitely could have brought it up himself, saying, "Hey, if I'm going to be doing any more on this, then, could we revisit authorship? I've been done enough work to be second-author, but I'm about to pass that point, so what do you think?" I suppose we could go co-first-author. But that's a bunch of silly nonsense so I'm fine not being listed first.

It might seem silly — or like you’re getting ahead of yourself — to have a formal discussion about authorship before any data exist. But really, that's the only sensible time to have that conversation, if you have any hope of avoiding unfair surprises. If you're working with less-experienced scientists, they might not be aware that these authorship discussions are standard practice. Negotiating authorship at the start of a project is something that senior scientists pick up from experience. We need to make sure that new scientists learn this early on in their career — and not as the result of a bad experience.

If you're working on a project, and you don't know the plans for authorship, then now is the time to have that discussion. If you're working with people who do not want to be transparent about authorship, you probably shouldn't be working with those people. If someone doesn't want to talk about authorship, the most parsimonious explanation is that they're trying to hide something from you.

If you're a senior scientist and there are junior scientists in your group, does everybody know what the authorship arrangements are? My students and collaborators will (or at least, should) have zero surprises when it comes to who will be on the papers related to the work that they're doing. Can you say the same thing about what happens in your lab?

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