December 9, 2014

Colin Firth and the Slippery Slope of Scientific Authorship

Colin Firth CBE...PhD? Nicogenin (Flickr)
I’ve been in research for about seven years now. But if you search my name in PubMed, precisely one scientific paper will pop up—a manuscript published this past spring from my current group. I’m pretty far down on the author list, which reflects my contribution relative to my colleagues on this particular paper. While I helped with some of the writing, the data collection and most of the analyses were performed by others.

As you snuggle by the fire this holiday season to watch Love Actually, you should know that you’re also viewing the work of a published academic neuroscientist. That’s right—another PubMed search reveals that actor Colin Firth is cited on a 2011 brain imaging study in the journal Current Biology. 

And it doesn’t take an insecure graduate student like me to accuse Mr. Firth of not pulling all-nighters in the laboratory.

Authorship in science is tricky. In some laboratories, it’s a bit of a taboo topic. Ask your average scientist if they’ve witnessed abuses in authorship, and they’ll likely be brimming with stories for you—from people being “gifted” an authorship they don’t truly deserve, to hard-working (often junior) scientists being wrongly shafted by their colleagues. These stories are rarely discussed among labmates, and almost never between junior and senior investigators.

And then there are the extremes, like the 2001 Nature paper on the sequencing of the human genome boasting 2,900 authors and the 2012 paper detailing the Higgs boson, which cites a whopping 3,171 co-authors. Where exactly do we draw the line between who has made a meaningful contribution to a project and who is better suited for the “Acknowledgments” section?