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What do author Contributions mean in papers


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Hello everyone,


So this is a general question regarding papers. Some papers are really obvious when there are collaborations, who did what on the paper, other times its a bit more tricky. Usually for bigger papers, it goes something like this: 

A, B, and C designed experiments. A, D, and E conducted experiments. F analyzed the data. B, D, F, and G wrote the paper. 

The problem is, if I'm looking at say author G, they didn't appear to design, conduct, or analyze the experiments and data, they only wrote the paper. So is it safe to say this paper does not reflect what their lab does? Or say You are looking at author B, they designed the experiments and wrote the paper, but again, same question as author G. 

Now you might say, well look at their lab, see the research and techniques they use, and you can find out which part of the paper they did. The problem is, take author G. They didn't do anything but write the paper, but the paper is exactly in line with their other publications that they have personally done, and as described by their research interests on their page. So when I read this paper and go, oh this is really cool, whatever lab did this I wanna be a part of, and I'm like ok lets see which lab did this. Then I realize, oh shit, thats a lot of labs, and the person that I thought was doing this hasn't apparently done anything but write the paper. 

Anyways, my main question is, how do you normally interpret these statements at the bottom or at the top of these papers? What do they mean "designed experiments", "conducted experiments", "analyzed data", etc. How do you find out who is responsible for most of the work, and who is just a collaborator, who ran an experiment or had a small role in it? Usually this would be by who is first author, second author, etc. But usually most PIs put their name last on papers, or the corresponding authors name last, and their own second to last (usually corresponding authors are indicated). But in this scenario, author G was also the second to last author, even though apparently he only wrote the paper. So it's becoming really hard for me to find out what papers are actually author G's work, and which ones are just collaborations. Any help would be appreciated!

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I think you need to also take these contribution statements with a grain of salt. As you might imagine from the 3 word sentences, there isn't a lot of detail given. In your specific example, I would not be surprised if G didn't actually directly contribute to the scientific work at all. Maybe G was another prof that was added to the paper because G was one of the other authors' advisors. Or maybe the other authors used some analysis or equipment designed by G. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that G supervised the entire thing, along with whoever the last author was. Note that "wrote the paper" could mean something like "proof read a draft" or "wrote one paragraph" or "wrote the entire thing". 

Also how often do these statements appear in journals from your field? In my field, we only encounter these statements in Nature (or was it Science? Or both?). Anyways, since we rarely use them in our field, you might see astro papers with statements like "All authors contributed equally to the work" since we never really thought about how to divide it up. Or, maybe <advisors> designed experiment, <students> conducted analysis, and all authors contributing to writing the manuscript. 

My point is that these statements are super generic and they do not really do a good job of specifying the "intensity". Like the writing example above, "analyzed data" could mean someone actually developing protocols/code to analyze data, or maybe they just gave a copy of their code to someone else's student to run. 

If you want to know what the lab does, look at their lab page. If you want to know what kind of papers the lab produces, look at the work of the lab's students. Students generally work in their advisor's lab the majority of the time. In my field, if the student led the work, the student is the first author and advisor is 2nd author. I know in lab fields, it can be different. One suggestion is to look at the PhD dissertations of recently graduated students from the lab. The papers in there or the techniques described are likely the ones the lab works on.

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Actually looking at the students name (who's name is first author) is a really good idea, I hadn't thought about that. Although there are some PIs that sometimes put their own names as first author (but a simple google check should determine if its a student or PI). So thank you! Also, it pops up all the time in most of the journals I see in my field. 

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The other tip that I got from my undergrad mentor when choosing a school or PI after being accepted was to look at the papers that the students of that PI wrote, not just the papers that the PI wrote. This will give you a sense of what level of work/independence/achievement that you as a student could expect to have if you worked with that PI. Of course, you have to be careful and choose a fair sample of students---if you just pick their best students then you cannot expect the same outcome for yourself.

However, it will tell you how often the student publishes as first author vs. another author position. If you notice that all the papers coming from a lab/group have the PI as first author and not the student, then that would tell you something. It sounds like this is more common in your field, but it wouldn't be a good sign in my field if the PI was always the first author. In my field, the PI would be first author if it's a giant project that they are leading and the student was recruited to contribute something to the project. But that shouldn't be the student's entire PhD---they should have some first author work of their own too. So, by looking at how often students are first author and how often the PI are first author, it shows you how often the PI lets students take leadership on a new project (in my field). 

In addition, you can compare the writing across all the papers published by the group. If you notice very similar language in all papers, even those by other students, then you might infer that the PI takes a big role in writing the papers. This is both good and bad---good because it shows the PI actually cares about their students' papers. But if it too prominent, then it might show that the PI takes over the paper writing process and doesn't allow the student to actually contribute to the field. 

The way I think about the above is that as a grad student you don't want to just be a cog in your group/PI's research machine. You want to become an independent researcher on your own by the time you graduate. 

But just to stress again---this is best done **after** you have received offers and are now choosing which school and potentially PIs to work with. If your school has rotations, then you will likely learn most of this information during your rotation and talking to other students (in my field, it's a little more important to choose at least one person to work with when you also accept your offer). 


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From personal experience, the professors who did make themselves first author wasn't about the amount of work they did, they were just assholes. They're justification was "my lab, my money, so I'm always first author", even if they had very little involvement outside of writing.  

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  • 2 weeks later...

The contributions don't mean much really...

A safe bet:

First author - Conducted most of the work and knows the fine details of the science

Last author - Supervised the project and can range from knowing the research almost as well as the 1st author to having seen the paper only when it was submitted.

Everything in between can be chaos, even the simplest reagent supply can result in co-authorship.

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