Aug 022016
Scientists in lab looking busy while the supervisor gets all the credit

Scientists are precious beings and nowhere is that more evident than when it comes to deciding author order on a paper. For those who have made good life choices and are not currently fighting their way up the academic pyramid, I shall explain why this is such a big deal for the people in the ivory tower – you know, the people who pride themselves on knowing a lot about very little. Peer-reviewed papers are the scout badges of the academic world. Academics must acquire as many as possible, at any cost, to prove productivity and worth. The more papers an academic has, the more they can feel like an important person.

Here’s the catch. When a paper is written, everyone who has contributed intellectually to the ideas and results in the paper is listed as an author. Only two positions really matter: first and last place. First place is typically reserved for the poor bastard who has done the majority of the experimental work and they’ve typically written a large portion of the paper.

Last place is reserved for the principal supervisor. Sometimes it can be hard to actually quantify what this person has done and in some cases their sole contribution is as the gate keeper to the project’s money. Most of the time, the last author has contributed large amounts of time/tears/whiskey/caffeine/arse-kissing in order to get the project up and running.

The names in the middle of the paper can be the hardest to position. They consist of people who have done something, not a lot, but enough to have their names on a paper. Sometimes these central authors have actually done nothing other than be in the right place at the right time. It’s easier to name people on a paper than have a fight with them about why they are not on the paper. Much like a bukkake session, no-one wants to be in the middle, but someone has to, otherwise it doesn’t work.

If you find yourself in a situation where people’s egos are getting in the way of publication and you can’t work out the order of names try one, or a combination, of these approaches:

1. Pop Quiz 

People love meetings. It is the perfect way to feel like you are doing work when you’re actually thinking about all of the things that aren’t work, such as sex, holidays, sex on holidays and why the person across the table always has chocolate in the corners of his mouth. It’s only 9 am. Who eats chocolate for breakfast?

Organize a meeting that quickly turns into a pop quiz about the paper. To encourage full attendance, tell prospective authors there will be cake. Questions such as “what’s the main conclusion of the paper?” and “what’s my name?” will quickly weed out the hangers on. You’ll need to supply your own buzzers. Any bonus round must include slime.

2. Dirtiest lab coat

Line up all of the lab coats from the authors and place them in order from dirtiest to cleanest – this is your author order. If someone doesn’t have a lab coat they are clearly not a real scientists and cannot be included on the paper.

3. Do a beep test

The person to get the furthest in the test gets positioned as first author. The academic career path doesn’t lend itself to a fit and healthy lifestyle. If you were to line up academics in order of seniority, from least to most, on average I’d hazard a guess that you’d find the sweatiest people towards the senior end on the line – even standing in line may be too much effort. Subjecting everyone to a beep test will ensure that the person who has ruined their health the most, in the name of science, is compensated by being last author.

4. Haiku

Ask each author to write a haiku on their contributions to the paper. Points awarded for creativity and reference to the paper that you are submitting. Here’s an example for a recent paper of mine:

Thanks for completing

my PhD ideas

I didn’t want to

I guess this is why I didn’t get first author.

What would be your research Haiku to get first author placement?


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