It’s a truth universally acknowledged, that for a research career to flourish you need to publish first author papers. However, like many things concerning scientific publishing, this norm fails the ‘explain it to a non-biologist’ test.
Non-biologist: So, how do you get credit for the papers you publish?
Biologist: Well, if you are listed first in the authorship, you get 40%, and if you are last you get 40%, and if you are in the middle, you get anywhere from 0.001% to 20%, depending on how many authors there are and how well known you already are.
A significant problem with the system is that it fails to reflect that science can be an extremely collaborative enterprise, and the ‘first author’ credit model rides rough-shod over this. Or, as Nick Loman more forcefully put it ‘it’s a cancer at the heart of genuine team based science’ (there is lots of interesting discussion and ideas, which inspired much of this article in the replies to that tweet). It leads to the perception that the majority of the work was done by the first author, which could absolutely not be the case. It is probable that the first author did more work than any other author, but 2nd, 3rd and 4th, etc authors can still make major contributions.
So, what are the alternatives to this system? The one which is increasingly popular is ‘equal contribution’ of two or more authors; in one analysis of the New England Journal of Medicine, there was an increase from <1% of articles having joint authorships in 2000, to 8.6% of articles in 2009. In my personal experience, this is a vast improvement compared with only having first authorships and actually makes collaboration more enjoyable as people are able to work together knowing that they will receive something closer to their due share of the credit. One thing which needs to happen with joint first authorships is that it filters through to the rest of the academic system e.g. on slides with data from that paper, both authors should be mentioned; in journals with “name, date” referencing styles, both authors should be mentioned; etc.
However, joint authorships are an imperfect amendment to the first author system, as there is a good chance of disproportionate credit being given to the first author, due to the well accepted, and very human tendency to use “first author, date” as short-hand for the paper. One intriguing solution to this would be to use a What 3 Words inspired system, and convert DOIs to combinations of normal words, which are much more memorable than seemingly random strings of digits. So on your slide containing a figure from a paper would not say e.g. “Venter et al., 2001”, which emphasises the first author. Nor would it say “10.1126/science.1058040”, which is difficult to write down rapidly. But would say e.g. daring.lion.race. That combination would match uniquely to that specific paper, while being easy to write and non-prescriptive about author contribution. I see this system as a nice alternative to, rather than a replacement for the ‘name, date’ convention, which can give valuable information about the quality/context of the work.
Another way, rather than extending the first-authorship system, would be to take an arbitrary approach. Alphabetical ordering is the norm in particle physics and economics (it has been blamed for an excess of tenured economists at top 10 universities with surnames early in the alphabet). Random ordering has been proposed as an alternative which is more symmetric than purely alphabetical ordering, but in my opinion, valuable information about the contribution of the different authors is lost in these systems.
Personally, my favourite solution (explored more fully here) is to explicitly and publicly assign every author a proportion of the credit for a paper, where the sum across the authors totals to 1. This is more or less implicit in the current system, so it’s better to make it explicit, and allow the much more exact assignment of credit which this system would enable. It could be combined with other bibliometrics like journal H-index; is it better to have 0.01 of a Nature paper of 0.5 of a PLoS Genetics paper? Would people be less willing to give ‘gift authorships’ if they knew it was going to cost them? Would people be less willing to accept gift authorships if they knew that everyone would see they only got/deserve 0.01 of the credit? The credit you receive could be combined with the impact of the paper, as measured by e.g. citations. So, 0.5 of a paper which gets 10 citations is worth the same as 0.1 of a paper which gets 50 citations. Possible negatives are that it encourages people to be exclusionary in who deserves authorship, and that it detracts from the credit of the first/last authors of large collaborative projects.
In summary, I think the system is ripe for modernisation, and that this would be a huge benefit to the scientific enterprise. I’m cautiously optimistic that some of the more forward looking journals could move to an assigned credit system.