The problem with describing author contribution

Did you ever read the author contribution box on a paper you have contributed to with horror? Did you not realize you were hardly a part of the study, that someone else is claiming the idea, the analysis, or all the writing? What went wrong? The project was so much fun, such teamwork, such discovery, bit by bit, resulting in a manuscript that went through months of rewriting. Then when boiled down into a few categories of contribution, it turns out the other party really did nearly everything, according to them.

What went wrong? I see several sources of confusion. Each person involved in a study will be much more aware of their own contribution than of that made by others. This may particularly be a problem if the work is a result of teams at two different universities. Since these pieces are often filled in at the last minute, they may not even be considered worthy of discussion.

But let’s get one thing straight first off: what does it take to be an author on a study? This could be a big topic, but let’s make it a small one. You have to have done something to contribute to the study. How much varies. It used to be the technicians, often women, were not authors, though they may have done all the experimental work. I remember having this explained to me as an undergraduate when I interviewed for a job at Michigan’s medical campus. The male professor told me when I asked that the technicians got acknowledged and that was all they wanted. I decided not to work in that lab. So, for authorship you have to conceive of the study, impact it in some way, analyze data, write it up, or somehow make it better. You may do this and not be an author, but to be an author you have to actually contribute to the study. Being in the lab, or providing general funding is not enough, though teaching someone to do the techniques they need for a study should count.

But let’s get back to those author contribution boxes that are becoming more and more common. PNAS in an editorial in 2004 by Nicholas Cozzarelli, “strongly encourages” specification of author contributions. He suggests that author contribution categories might be: “designed research, performed research, contributed new reagents or analytic tools, analyzed data, or wrote the paper.” These are suggestions, but they are what we see in many papers now.

Besides the problem of each person seeing their own contribution more clearly than other people’s contributions, there is the problem of definition for every category. It would be tedious to list all the possibilities, but there are a few systematic areas of differing perspective. What if a student plans out a study, brings it to others who go over it carefully, ending up in a redesign? Is that designed by one or more? The answer depends on how important the changes were, often a judgement call.

How about the writing? What if a student writes the paper, but it is repeatedly commented and revised by others? Does that count as also writing? Usually the more senior members of a team do the revising and commenting and the more junior members bring first drafts of experiments, analyses, and writing. There may also be a power difference. How to balance all this?

I’m unconvinced that those author contribution boxes are ever accurate. In ones I have been involved in they have been variously grossly inaccurate, over generous, over stingy, or accurate but uselessly vague. How can you really break out what members of a collaborating team did exactly? If you list contributions, you should be sure to get input from everyone, ideally by asking each person what they contributed, not sending a pre-made list with inaccuracies that develop a life of their own. Keep notes so you can document your contributions and remember to stick up for the weakest team member that might get forgotten.

Posted in Collaboration, Ethics, Publishing your work | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

What if you assume your hypothesis is wrong when you design an experiment?

Designing experiments is deceptively simple. After all, you know what’s going on, right? So you just design an experiment that manipulates or otherwise examines the variable of interest, with an appropriate control, then show the pattern you expected, write it up and publish. Easy.

Or not? What if you assume you are always wrong and just need to design your experiments to reveal the way in which you are wrong. What additional controls might you think of? What confounding variables might hard thought reveal? What if you did think about all those issues that might mess up your work right from the start? Could you ever do the experiment?

There is a hard balance between paralyzing yourself as you struggle to design the perfect experiment and doing the less than perfect experiment only to discover a comparatively easy control might have revealed certain problems a lot earlier.

We struggle with this balance. All too often an additional control becomes obvious only after an experiment is complete. This means we have to do it all over, or redo part of it. This is an issue that comes up a lot in experimental evolution, where density and genetic relatedness interact. It can come up in ecological experiments. It is important even in experiments that use the comparative method without actually manipulating living things.

I do not know the answer to efficiently designing the perfect experiments. I do know that most ideas are eventually proven wrong, incomplete, or irrelevant, so keeping that humbly in mind might help one develop a certain humility and caution in experiments. And never forget that the most difficult to explain results might point to the next big idea.

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Bring on your questions! I’ll answer.

Some of my readers in ticklish academic dilemmas have emailed me with questions. I answer these questions, privately first, and sometimes I then address the topic with a general blog on it. I do this later and without giving any particulars of course, for I respect your privacy. I’ll even change the story around a bit for further concealment, since there will always be details that can be changed without impacting the main point.

You don’t need to conceal your identity because I won’t ever share it. Not only will I not share it, but I am highly unlikely to remember it, the best form of concealment of all! But of course, if you like you can use your friend’s email or some such device.

Often you will be able to answer your own questions in the process of writing them down. That is where much of my confidence in answers comes from. After all, you know the particulars of your case better than anyone else. You also know how they make you feel. I can usually see loud and clear what you think the solution is, though getting there might sometimes be tricky. Also, the forty years since I began graduate school have given me perspective. I suppose one of the hardest situations is when someone you like and trust is pushing you in a direction you know is not right for you.

A constant challenge for mentors is to understand that our students and colleagues are not the same as us. We have to help them discover their own answers, not follow in our footsteps. Even if we are very happy with where we are now, there are in everyone’s life and career some phases or circumstances we would not have wished on anyone, formative as they might have been. So discover in yourself your own best solutions, but ask others, including me, too. Ultimately it is up to you.

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Is tenure failure a social failure, not an individual failure?

A great piece by Cin-Ty Lee in his blog, Down to earth questions, makes the wise point that tenure denied is a problem from many levels other than the individual. It could be a hiring problem, a mentoring problem, an overburdening problem. In short, what the department does is a huge part of the tragedy of tenure failure. We should all do our best to avoid the million dollar loss of tenure failure.

One of the problems with switching universities is you are farther away from some very good friends. Cin-Ty is one of those friends we left behind. We taught bird field biology with him, but his is academically an exceptional geologist. He also paints expertly. Currently he seems to be accepting some highly responsible positions and sharing his ever frank opinions on his blog, Downtoearthquestions. At least in this way we can keep up, though as April approaches, birding in Texas becomes ever more enticing.

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How to motivate a graduate student

When you are motivated, ideas bubble up in the middle of any activity. When you are motivated, you find solutions and links across different areas of your endeavor. When you are motivated, you find joy that carries you through the boring parts of any activity.

Since this is a blog about becoming a biology professor, the kind of motivation I’m thinking about has to do with research. The particular focus is on graduate students, but could apply to other levels. Post-docs and faculty are likely to have passed the great self-motivation divide. Undergrads have many academic demands on their time and may not yet have figured out where their motivation lies.

So, how exactly do you motivate a graduate student in your group who does not seem to be very motivated? I’m afraid the short answer is that you cannot. Motivation has to come from within. The student has to want to discover for themselves. Motivation is an extremely personal quality.

If you cannot motivate a graduate student, does this mean no one can ever motivate anyone? I would not say that, just that motivation comes earlier in life. Perhaps it comes from earliest childhood, when you are encouraged to explore, when your ideas are treated as if they mean something, when you are shown the natural world, and given simple tools for exploration like a butterfly net, or a child’s microscope. Besides encouragement, a little pushing is a good thing, for it challenges you to find a best performance past what you might have thought possible.

Motivation arises in Fairchild Botanical Gardens butterfly house

Motivation arises in Fairchild Botanical Gardens butterfly house

My earliest memories come from exploring, from trying to follow rabbits in a Washington D.C. park. They extended to a catholic interest in all things wild and natural. By the time I was 12 and tried to smuggle two jars of formaldehyde into the tiny suitcase my parents allowed me to pack myself for a year in England, I was set as a curious naturalist and motivation was never a problem. I could go on about the various teachers through the years that encouraged and pushed me, but I bet it would be more fun to tune into your own memories on the topic.


Is he thinking that when he grows up he will study butterflies?


While it is true you cannot motivate a graduate student, I think it is possible to unmotivate them. Give them a narrow already defined project, criticize frequently, pay attention to when they come to work and when they leave, compare them unfavorably to others, encourage competition rather than collaboration, and steal or crush their ideas. Do several of these for only a few months and you will go a long way towards unmotivating a student. The lucky ones will simply leave your group. But of course, you are not this kind of person, so you will not do any of these things.

So, what do you do with the unmotivated student? First, think of your own needs. How is the student impacting you? How is he impacting your group? Meet with him and set up a list of clear expectations. Also make it clear that there is no place for someone who does not love what they do in research science because it is impossible to flourish against those that love this field. Help him to understand that he needs to discover what he loves, and do that, leaving your lab and science, if necessary.

Posted in Graduate school, Research | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Consider a temporary stint as ecology and evolution editor at Nature

Patrick Goymer is taking a half year paternity leave at Nature and so they are looking for a replacement. Here is the announcement. I bet there are few positions that are as likely to help you learn about your field from the big picture side of things. If I were younger I might drop everything and apply. What better way to get out of the details of your project and see what other people find exciting? Along the way, you get to be on the inside of the publishing of a top journal.

I’ve talked to others who have been involved in publishing, in the popular press, and in editorial positions and they all emphasize how valuable this kind of experience is for insight, for collaborations, for seeing across fields.

We’ve had a bit of this kind of experience here in our two weeks as Distinguished Visiting Professors in the Biology Department at University of Miami. I’ll write more about that later, for it has been a great experience. So, think about what you are doing and whether it is more important than a look inside the coveted editorial staff at Nature.

Posted in behavioral ecology, Publishing your work, Science writing for the public, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why aren’t you an evolutionist?

We have ecologists, economists, sociologists, and biologists. We have Marxists, capitalists, artists, and psychologists. We even have the tongue twisting physicists. Why don’t we call ourselves evolutionists? Well, one of us does, D. S. Wilson. Think what you will of his ideas and initiatives, no one would deny he is an evolutionary biologist, as it says on Wikipedia. No one would deny either that he thinks for himself, apparently arriving at the conclusion that it make sense to call himself the short and sweet term, evolutionist.

What’s wrong with the rest of us? Are we worried people won’t realize evolution is part of biology? Does evolutionist sound funny? No more so than ecologist, I’d say. Some fields don’t add -ist to their practitioners. We have historians, not historicists, computer scientists, not computerists, but isn’t it time for us to shorten our name to 5 syllables from 10 and become evolutionists?

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