Hail to the Closer and more authorship considerations
The article “Authorship — Let’s talk about it!” sparked a lot of debate. Let’s go through the following issues once more: the significance of the closer, or the person who is given the opportunity to complete the work; who should be a corresponding author; and do we require a “legal” definition of authorship.
Cite as: Kamoun, Sophien. (2022). Hail to the Closer and more authorship considerations. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7457644
Hail to the Closer
“Authorship — Let’s talk about it!” set off this response by my fellow plant biologist Jean Greenberg, who commented on Facebook:
“This is a very thoughtful piece. You mention the 95% done work that seems to take a lot of work to actually complete. I’ve had the experience of people leaving the lab and not completing that last “5%”. Enter “the closer”, that person who gets the work completed and works on all those details that must be attended to. my closer did not conceive the project but without them the work could not be published. I would like to add that contribution to the author list. We cannot underestimate the contributions of closers!”
Jean made a pretty wise observation there. “My manuscript is 95% done” is a running joke among academics. The question of how much credit should be given to the “Closer” arises because people leave projects far too frequently, often at various stages of completion (the metaphorical 95%). Considering that finishing the paper is so critical and requires much effort, which position in the author list should the Closer be given?
There are no hard and fast rules. It does of course depend on the context and how much effort was put into “closing” the paper. In one such project, PhD student Erin Zess joined in when much of the experimental work was already completed. However, closing the paper required much data processing and analyses, and also deep intellectual input to turn the work into a narrative fit for a scientific publication. Erin drove that work, and accordingly was listed first when we published the paper “N-terminal β-strand underpins biochemical specialization of an ATG8 isoform”. Postdocs Abbas Maqbool and Yasin Dagdas, who kicked off the project and co-supervised Erin, were deservedly listed as last authors, and shared the corresponding author accolade to reflect their supervisory role — more on this topic later.
In another example, the two lead postdocs left the project with the story line and figures pretty much completed, but just couldn’t free up the time to write the paper due to demanding new jobs and competing priorities. Here comes the Closer. In this case, she was Artemis Giannakopolou who finished her PhD in my lab a few months earlier and already moved back to her native Greece. I invited Artemis to wrap up the article because I knew she was a great writer and I understood she may have had some time to spare for the task. The email communication was brief and direct:
Me: “I’m wondering how busy you are and whether I can ask you for help with a writing project?”
Artemis: “I am always up for writing projects, you know me!”
Artemis did a excellent job, not just by leading the drafting of the paper, but also by dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, coordinating with all authors and checking off all the tidbits required for finishing a paper. This earned Artemis the third author position in our paper “Gene expression polymorphism underpins evasion of host immunity in an asexual lineage of the Irish potato famine pathogen,” just after the two lead authors Marina Pais and Kentaro Yoshida. The author contributions clearly reflect Artemis (AG) role in writing the paper, but not playing a role in designing the project nor carrying out experiments and data analyses.
Kudos Artemis for stepping in, assisting with project closure, and handling submission and revisions. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to identify someone to play this role, and in this particular case, we were fortunate that the experimental work was completed before the postdocs left the lab. We also managed to navigate through the review process without having to perform any major additional experiments — a rarity for life sciences papers in this day and age.
Should the head of lab always be listed as an author?
On Facebook, Centre of Biotechnology of Sfax (CBS, Tunisia) biostatistician Ahmed Rebai commented on whether senior people should always be listed as authors even when they didn’t contribute to the study design, execution, and writing. Indeed, there are institutions where the Head of Lab or Institute Director is automatically included as an author even if they only peripherally contributed to the project. I agree that there is a lack of consistency on this issue.
Ahmed brought up an interesting distinction between significant vs. substantial contributions. As he states, a significant contribution “added value to the paper,” although this doesn’t necessary mean a particularly considerable contribution (as in substantial). In fact, there is a legal distinction betwee the two terms. As stated in this legal note, “The word ‘significant’ often means something less than the word ‘substantial’. But in context it can mean ‘substantial’”. Thus, significant actually lowers the bar for what level of contribution warrants authorship.
This relates to the loosening standards of authorship. Plant biologist Rich Jorgensen summed up the point in a tweet, “When I was a student at Wisconsin in the 70s, the standard was each author must be able to defend everything in a paper. That was before BigScience…”
Indeed, whereas more lenient authorship requirements can enable listing undergraduate students, technicians, and other ancillary contributors, they might also favor senior authors who may not have made significant contributions to the project. “Is getting the fund enough to sign any paper coming out of the project particularly if the project involves many teams and actions and deliverable. My conviction is No,” commented Ahmed. Some would disagree, but perhaps this is the problem with hard rules mindlessly applied without context. My view is that it depends on the project’s and article’s history, as well as the research teams’ respective traditions. There is a difference, for instance, between conceptualising and outlining a project to secure funding and merely having a senior administrator allocate core cash to research teams.
Who should be corresponding author?
Numerous readers raised the issue of who should be the corresponding author, and the question kept coming back. In a tweet, my colleague John Mansfield, a plant pathologist, asked if there were any rules for designating corresponding authors.
I asked the AI chat engine, ChatGPT who should be corresponding author, and the answer was remarkably comprehensive:
“The corresponding author is the lead author who is responsible for communicating with the journal and managing the submission process on behalf of all co-authors. It is typically the person who takes primary responsibility for the research and writing of the manuscript, and who is the point of contact for the journal. The corresponding author should be available to address any questions or concerns that the editor or reviewers may have about the manuscript, and should be able to communicate effectively with all co-authors. It is important to choose a corresponding author who is organized and able to manage the submission process efficiently. In general, the corresponding author should be a senior member of the research team, such as a principal investigator or senior postdoctoral researcher.”
As plant biologist Jacqui Monaghan reminded us in a tweet, the corresponding author is also the point of contact after the paper is published, for instance to help distribute research material described in the study. Thus, it’s important that at least one corresponding author is a somewhat permanent member of the lab.
Although traditionally, the corresponding author is a senior academic, such as a senior professor or a principal investigator (PI), the position became implicitly viewed as indicating a significant supervisory and leadership role in the project. Therefore, my opinion is that early/mid-career scientists should be given more opportunities to be (co)-corresponding authors to recognize any supervisory and leadership roles. Not only does this correctly reflect their role in the study, but it also help advance their careers when they apply for fellowships and grants.
In the Zess et al. paper mentioned above, two postdocs were listed as co-corresponding authors in addition to myself. The author contributions indeed list the role that all three of us have played in project supervision and administration.
Inventorship vs authorship
On Twitter, Rich Jorgensen pointed out the difference between inventorship and authorship. ChatGPT agrees:
“Authorship and inventorship are two distinct concepts that are often confused. Here is a brief overview of the differences between the two:
Authorship refers to the people who contributed to the research and writing of a scientific paper or other publication. In general, authors are expected to have made a significant intellectual contribution to the work, such as designing and conducting experiments, analyzing data, or writing and revising the manuscript. The order in which authors are listed on a paper is usually determined by the level of their contribution to the work, with the first author being the person who made the greatest contribution, and the last author typically being the senior researcher or supervisor who oversaw the work.
Inventorship refers to the people who are named on a patent application as the inventors of a new invention. In the United States, inventorship is determined by the Patent Act, which defines an inventor as someone who has made a “conception” of the invention. To be considered an inventor, a person must have contributed to the “intellectual property” of the invention, which includes coming up with a novel idea and reducing it to practice. Inventorship is important because it determines who has the legal rights to the invention and who can benefit from the patent.
In summary, authorship refers to the people who contributed to the writing of a publication, while inventorship refers to the people who are named on a patent as the inventors of an invention. It is possible for an individual to be both an author and an inventor, but this is not always the case.”
In contrast to authorship of research articles, inventorship on patents can carry serious legal consequences. For instance, misrepresentation of inventorship can invalidate a patent as Rich pointed out. Disputes still occur but because of the legal consequences, the issue may be taken a little more seriously than authorship of research papers. It really shouldn’t be the case as authorship can also impact scientists careers and even future financial returns through jobs, funding and other perks. This is what COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) says in their discussion of authorship:
“Authorhip conveys significant privileges, responsibilities, and legal rights, and may have implications for career advancement.”
Patent law defines who is an inventor and who is not. Rich wrote that it’s long overdue that academia defines authorship in a more consistent manner. But I find that an almost impossible task. There is too much variation in norms and guidelines across scientific disciplines and communities. To take one example, I strongly disagree with the 4 criteria that the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommends for authorship. These are reasonable criteria on their own, but my beef is with the “AND”. Can we really expect all authors to have contributed to drafting or revising a paper when the project involves dozens of authors? And again, what does “substantial” mean in this context?
It’s often said that we’re free-spirited academics. Getting academics to agree to anything is like herding cats. I don’t like these stringent guidelines primarily because they exclude worthy scientists from the process. These criteria are inconsistent with the principles of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) that we advocate for academia. I want science to be inclusive. I’d like to see more students, predocs, technicians and under-represented groups participate in the science enterprise and be accordingly rewarded with authorship. For years, senior researchers and administrators who contributed little to the study have been included as authors so why complain about more inclusive authorship criteria? We can all predict who would be in and out if we applied these strict ICMJE-type criteria.
• The Closer’s contribution to the paper cannot be underestimated.
• “Too often, researchers attach their names to reports when they have contributed nothing at all to the work.”
• Early/mid-career scientists should be given more opportunities to be (co)-corresponding authors to recognize any supervisory and leadership roles.
• Authorship and inventorship are two distinct concepts that shouldn’t be confused.
• Authorship criteria should be inclusive to promote DEI.
In addition to the colleagues listed above, I’d like to thank fellow plant pathologist Eric Boa who shared interesting anecdotes and thoughts about the topic. Of note is how Eric had to argue with one member of his team who wanted to include his driver as an author on the basis that “he had gone to collect all the data from different sites”. You can read Eric’s own blog here.