The Fourth Author

“Publish or perish” is the old axiom that is heard in the research realm. As a graduate student, the emphasis on publications as a metric of success is often difficult to come to terms with (particularly when you have hit a roadblock in your project, with no foreseeable hope for forward progress). Further, the strong emphasis of “first-author” publications makes this metric even more unappealing. However, I acknowledge that I have no better system than publications in mind to help judge progress as a scientist, but maybe the current system could be tweaked just a bit. In the modern area of research, where publishing has become increasingly difficult in the face of the burden of proof with all the technology/methods available, and Ph.D. training is taking longer and longer, maybe we can look at publications in a different light.

Science is an immensely collaborative field. During my graduate school experience thus far, I have had the ability to collaborate with several different labs. These collaborations have all been helping out on others’ projects using some of my lab’s expertise. I have found these experiences to be very rewarding: I meet other researchers, I learn about their projects, I learn how I could help their project and see how it would help move it forward, and so on. I can’t imagine my graduate experience without these experiences. However, given the current system of graduate education, these experiences have no value from the perspective of Ph.D. programs, since only first-author publications get you the degree.

Here is an example: if I collaborate with a lab on a project (where I put in a significant amount of effort, but not enough to have co-first authorship be a consideration), in the best-case scenario, I would be the second author on the resulting publication. And although second author would be the very best case, it’s more likely I would be the third, fourth, or fifth, depending on the exact project and my involvement. In this case, the resulting publication would not help me graduate. My thesis committee would not care about a fourth-author publication regardless of whether I put a few months of work into it. This creates a disincentive to involve myself with collaborative projects unless they have the potential for high authorship positions.

In my mind, this creates a paradox for science: the practice of science is inherently collaborative by its very nature, but you are evaluated based on the personal achievement of publications (specifically, first-author publications). A publication definitely has collaborative active aspects (i.e., the large presence of coauthors on publications); therefore, maybe the paradox stems from the emphasis on first-author publications and other “lower” author positions are de-emphasized. My feeling is that second, third, and fourth author positions can often be very valuable training experiences and should have at least some weight toward graduating. I particularly don’t like the idea of thinking about projects in terms of future authorship position—I would prefer to evaluate projects based on how much help I could provide or my interest in the project.

It is possible to add some value to non-first-author publications when it comes to graduate education. Practically, I believe that the specific role that was played on a project can be elucidated to the student’s thesis committee to help normalize for labs who follow less-strict guidelines for the inclusion of coauthors and for variation on how much work it took to achieve a given author position. Having said all that, I am not suggesting that students should be graduating without a first-author publication if they have enough publications in general. However, it is the requirement for multiple first-author papers before graduation that can be modified. I believe that a sole first-author paper with a variety of high non-first-author papers can definitely mean a student is ready to graduate (and thesis committees can help ensure that that is actually the case). In particular, there is value in being able to say that you completed your own project but also can work well with others on a project. It’s time we re-evaluate the way that progress through graduate education is evaluated and adapt to modern times to help improve the graduate experience.

  • cbrenan

    I agree. Graduate school provides training and opportunity to conceive and run your own project(s), expand your network of collaborators and show you are a good collaborator. Better and more interesting science is done this way.