I’ve been giving a fair bit of thought recently to the concept of “senior authorship”. Senior authorship is the practice whereby the last position on an author line is occupied by the leader of the lab in which the project was conducted (i.e., the P.I., the advisor, whatever terminology you prefer). Being the senior author on a paper is considered a sign of leadership on the project and is arguably at least as prestigious as being the first author. The importance of this position on the line is illustrated by the fact that Nature in its RSS feed lists the senior author, not the first author, on the ‘by line’ for the abstract. This practice is commonplace (i.e., practically required) in the cellular, molecular & biomedical fields, and is becoming increasingly prevalent in ecology.
This practice might make a certain amount of sense in traditional lab environments where it is practically impossible to do research without grant money and where most work is conducted primarily by members of a single lab, but it makes a lot less sense in ecology. For starters, many graduate student projects don’t depend on grant support from the advisor: field projects are done on the cheap with only small dollar support directly to the graduate student, increasing amounts of research are based on already collected data, and theory plays a prevalent role. Certainly advisors still play important roles in these projects (well, some of them anyway), but not necessarily in some way that is inherently different than that of other contributors.
But whether or not the advisor/PI “deserves” special recognition for projects conducted entirely by members of their labs isn’t the real issue. The real issue is that ecology is increasingly a collaborative science. Ecology is increasingly so interdisciplinary that it is difficult or impossible for a single lab to conduct the most interesting research on its own. Numerous projects combine field work and genetics, field work and theory or advanced statistical analysis, work on multiple major taxonomic groups, etc. The best way to conduct this type of research is for there to be collaboration among labs with different areas of expertise and this practice is increasingly common. But if several labs and therefore several faculty members are involved in a project then who should be senior author?
I have been involved in this type of collaboration and this issue can, in some cases, lead to substantial tension regarding who should be the senior author. I’ve had friends who have had similar experiences as well. These always get sorted out, and if you’re working with the right people there are no hard feelings in the end, but does it even make any sense to elevate one faculty member who has done just a little bit more than another to a position that conotes to the wider world a completely different level of contribution? The logical answer is simply no. In fact this is what causes the resulting tension in the first place. If the issue was who should be second or third author it wouldn’t be such a big deal because there is a level of gradation to the contributions, but senior authorship is completely distinct from all other positions. This doesn’t reflect the reality of cross-laboratory collaboration (except in some very specific circumstances) and it shouldn’t be reflected in the author line.
Now, I don’t care much about author order personally (unless someone else is trying to take a position they clearly don’t deserve), but I’m actually really concerned about this issue. The reason is that I suspect that the increasing emphasis on senior authorship that I’ve been seeing in ecology (an increasing prevalence in its practice, distinction of senior authorship for promotion and tenure, etc.) is actually going to decrease the number of truly collaborative cross-lab projects, just when we need them the most. Increasing pressure for faculty to be the senior author on papers can only lead them to spend less time working on projects where they will not (or risk not) being senior author. This means both not starting collaborative projects and also investing less in those collaborative projects when they do start them (I’ve heard a disturbing number of young faculty say things that support this possibility recently).
I suspect that these kinds of problems have impeded cross-disciplinary research in other fields, but I fear that the concept of senior authorship may be so ingrained in those fields that it may be too late to change it. In contrast, in ecology we still have a chance to insist that our discipline maintains its traditional approach to authorship where the author line is ordered from start to finish with respect to contribution. I believe that this will foster the cross-lab interdisciplinary collaborations that are so critical to understanding ecology and ecological challenges. Or, we can let the tail wag the dog and accept measures of personal success that impede scientific progress. The choice is up to you.