Friday, October 25, 2013

On the responsibilities of a first author

We know that the most tenuous of ecological strategies is cooperation. It can break down quickly and devolve into competition among potential partners to the detriment of everyone.

Writing a paper together is one of the highest forms of scientific cooperation. And its the first author that is responsible for maintaining that cooperative environment. The guidelines for leading a paper are rarely codified. In part, there are too many types of coauthorship relationships and too many types of papers.

That may be true, but I see a lot of the same mistakes made over and over again across a wide variety of types of papers** that make me think it might be better to try to lay these out and then work off of exceptions.

**the use of the word "my" is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Referring to a multi-author paper as "my paper" is warning sign #1 for bad collaborator. 

So, there might be better treatments of this out there, but I thought I would take a few moments to rough some of the responsibilities of being a first author.

1) Generate a clear vision for the paper. 
This is where leadership on a project generally begins. A vision for the paper is a reference point for people to make decisions against. It's a broad goal for what the paper will accomplish and to a degree how it will accomplish it. Of course, writing a paper is the terminus of a project, not its beginning, but by the time the manuscript has begun, coauthors need a point on the horizon to which they can refer. This point is rarely handed down by the first author to the others and often is generated with discussion. It is also not inflexible, but too much inconstancy, and coauthors will have difficulty tracking new goals. Part of this vision includes which journal to send the work to, which is often apparent early on in the process. A vision for an Ecological Monograph is much different than a Letter in Science.

2) Secure coauthors
Additional expertise is occasionally needed. The first author's responsibility is to solicit whether different expertise is needed and lay out a process to find them. On the flip side, the first author may also be responsible for determining whether a potential coauthor has made a significant intellectual contribution to the paper and deserves coauthorship or should be acknowledged only.

3) Coordinate the contributions of co-authors
All coauthors should share a common vision for a paper, but their contributions to realizing that vision will not be equal. The first author needs to make sure that the responsibilities of each coauthor are agreed upon and clear. In the best of situations, this is an easy process and everyone has a team approach. In other situations, the first author has to be initiate a process whereby everyone knows their role. Dictating is one process, but not the only way. Sometimes the first author writes 99% of the paper and they can just say to the other co-authors, chip in where you can. In many cases, co-authors need a structure to know where to contribute. Especially on revisions. Make sure they know what type of feedback you are looking for.

4) Provide an open process for progress
Managing the writing of the paper requires a great deal of transparency. Co-authors need to know what their contributions should be, but the process of making decisions needs to be open. If some co-authors are excluded from a decision, they will feel excluded and that's not good. Co-authors need to know what is happening and what is likely to happen next in the process. No paper runs this smooth, but it's a goal. Seek advice, but don't peel away individuals to secretly make decisions. One of the best ways to insure transparency is to have a central repository for all drafts and make all comments available to everyone. Periodically update coauthors on what has happened, what comments have been made, and how things have progressed.

5) Minimize the effort spent by co-authors
This may seem minor, but it is your job as first author to oversee an efficient process. You have to strive for constancy in goals. Minimize the numbers of drafts that coauthors must comment upon. No yo-yo-ing of responsibilities where coauthors perform tasks and then products are removed. This also means condensing the length of time over which a paper is developed. You can't sprint through things in 48 h, but 48 months is too long. Make sure the coauthors know your goal for how quickly you expect to progress through the paper. It might be hard to realize this early in one's career, but it's incredibly hard to pick up a paper after not seeing it for a few months.

6) Hear all suggestions
Part of the open process is to make sure that all coauthors get a chance to voice their opinions, and that their opinions are heard and seriously considered. If a coauthor raises a concern, do not sweep it under a rug. Consider it and provide an explanation for the decision. I remember as a graduate student voicing a concern on a paper that I was a minor coauthor on and feeling that the concern was not seriously considered. I look back 15 years later and having the same concern about the work to this day. It's always in your best interest to fully explore concerns by coauthors.

7) Defer personal goals to the benefit of the paper
If you give the impression to coauthors that your personal goals for the paper are overriding the group goals, coauthors are less likely to trust you to make sound decisions and less likely to work hard to contribute selflessly. Here's a tip. Never refer to the paper as "my paper". As soon as you have coauthors, it's "our paper".  As first author, you will likely get a disproportionate amount of the credit anyways so emphasize the team. Along those lines, first authorship generally represents the individual with the majority of the scientific input to the paper.

Sometimes the person who initially takes the lead of a project may have a smaller role leader. For example, on an earlier paper on bison, I started leading the paper, figured out I needed help, talked Sandra Hamel into helping, but then it was clear that she was leading the paper more than I. I continued to do as much as I could to help the paper, but she deserved to be first author. Because we had a team approach, the order of authorship was flexible, which benefitted progress.

8) Make ultimate decisions
As first author, ultimately it is your responsibility to make the ultimate decisions where there may be conflict. Making an ultimate decision to resolve a point on which two people disagree, one of whom may be you, should be considered a last resort. What constitutes good judgment is beyond a simple blog piece like this, but it needs to take into consideration a number of things. People have different intellectual stake in a paper. The benefits of being right need to be assessed against costs of being wrong. The ramifications of decisions can extend beyond the current paper to longer working relationships.

9) Coordinate revisions
Revisions are inevitable and the first author is in charge of coordinating these revisions generally (in some cases it is the corresponding author). Just like writing the paper, this stage needs to be done transparently and efficiently with clear division of labor.

All of this seems like a lot to coordinate and impossible to be done in a flexible manner.  I remember asking Terry about whether paper ever required contracts. He said that you could do them, but why would you want to work with anyone who required them? There is always a need to assume that people will act reasonably and a responsibility to act reasonably.

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