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Complex hierarchy

Study shows how difficult it is to understand each author

PAULA GABBAIThe activity of researchers is being transformed due to the advances of working within networks and the growing pressure to publish new knowledge in specialized journals. Two Spanish researchers decided to investigate the effects of these changes by analyzing an unusual object: the hierarchy of the signatures of the various authors of a scientific article. In a paper published in the last issue of the journal Scientometrics, Rodrigo Costas, from the Center for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, and Maria Bordons, from the Institute of Documental Studies on Science and Technology of Madrid, in Spain, analyzed the order of the signatures of articles published by 1,064 Spanish researchers from 1994 to 2004. The universe of authors came from three fields of knowledge: biology and biomedicine, materials sciences, and natural resources (which includes disciplines such as ecology, geology and oceanography).

The study’s main conclusion was that the older and more senior the researcher, the more often his or her name is the last one on the list of authors, which is the most prestigious position. However, there are nuances. In fields in which collaboration is weaker, such as natural resources (with an average of four authors per article) it is more common for the role of research leader, generally the person who signs last, to fall to an older researcher, a sign that the number of years spent in the career is an important factor for determining the head of the group. However, in fields in which working in a network is stronger, such as biology and biomedicine (with an average of seven authors per article), the determining factor of leadership is not age as much as the professional position – researchers who have made a greater contribution more quickly in their career can more often be listed last on the list of authors. Even though the sample is limited to Spanish scientists, the authors state that the phenomenon does not reflect an isolated situation. “Though there are differences from country to country, they are increasingly small, thanks to the rising internationalization of science,” stated Rodrigo Costas and María Bordons, who stressed the importance of the order of the signatures when it comes to acknowledging the importance of the researcher. “Authorship is one of the parameters in evaluation and results in professional prestige.”

The rules on the position of the name of the authors vary with the field of knowledge, but the most commonly used convention reserves the most important positions for the first name on the list (generally the researcher responsible for the experimental work) and the last, who generally has the role of supervising and leading. The remaining authors tend to appear in the intermediary positions, in decreasing order of contribution. There are exceptions, however, such as economics, mathematics and high-energy physics, which, for particular reasons, often choose alphabetical order.

The growth in collaboration, besides showing that the research world is becoming increasingly complex, also makes the sense of authorship and the position of the author on the list more ambiguous, noted the researchers. In multilateral collaborations that involve members of various groups, the patterns used regarding the order of signature have acquired new formats. The position of the authors is often determined after an exhaustive negotiation among the researchers, which may include, for example, a rotation of the position of principal author in the subsequent scientific articles, in order to reward the members of different teams appropriately. “In a study conducted collaboratively by two or three research groups, there is bound to be a discussion about the names that are to sign the articles and the order of the list,” says Samile Vanz, a professor from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and author of a PhD thesis on collaborations in Brazilian research (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue 169). “On the other hand, in fields such as high-energy physics, in which many groups take part in research and the list of co-authors can be as large as one thousand, there is no such negotiation and the names appear in alphabetical order.”

A frequent possibility in multidisciplinary groups, says Samile Vanz, is the preparation of different articles – each one focusing on one of the disciplines involved. The researcher from that specific area is the party responsible for preparing the article, but all the others are listed as co-authors – and, in this case, they appear in the middle of the list, regardless of age or professional status. “I can give a concrete example, because it happened to me: a group of researchers invited me to take part in a study on the co-citations of a periodical. The group prepared a paper with the results of the analysis and submitted it to a congress in its field, in which the research leader appeared in first place. I was in the middle of the list, above a master’s degree student. However, I prepared an article to publish in a journal in my area and, in this case, even though I used the results of the research, I focused on the data analysis technique. Obviously, I was the first name,” states Samile.

Journals, associations and international scientific institutions now require that each of the authors of a scientific article declare ahead of time his or her specific contribution. The authors’ statement inhibits the inclusion of those that collaborated on a secondary basis, although there are ambiguities in the various fields of knowledge when it comes to determining who should and who should not sign an article. In Brazil, the journals that demand such a statement are still few, but there is a tendency for this to grow here as well, says the editor in chief of the journal Scientia Agricola, Luís Reynaldo Ferracciú Alleoni. “The several factors that are linked to the quality of scientific journals will be the subject of the upcoming meeting of Abec, the Brazilian Association of Science Editors, to take place this month,” states Alleoni, a professor at the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture of the University of São Paulo (Esalq-USP) and one of the speakers at the Abec event. He tells us that the rules vary quite widely in his field of knowledge. “When it is an article on agricultural sciences connected with biology, one normally follows the biology and medical sciences standard, in which the leader is listed last. Still, there are exceptions, as was the case of the famous article published in Nature in July 2000 on the mapping of the genome of the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium, when the leader signed first,” he says, in reference to the researcher Andrew Simpson, from the Ludwig Institute. On the other hand, in other types of articles, sometimes the supervisor/advisor signs last, sometimes in second place, when the articles derive from dissertations and theses, or even in third place, when there is participation by the co-advisor, there being no preponderant rule, states Alleoni. In general, the other collaborators appear in decreasing order. “There are also those who choose to cite collaborators that did not take an active part in only the acknowledgements, which seems more advisable to me. Just as we have examples where the statistician, who helped to outline the experiment and to analyze the results, appears as one of the authors. This happens when the statistical analysis was crucial for the main author to interpret the data,” he states.

According to the study published in Scientometrics, there are several ways of defining authorship and even though none of them are universal, the most generally accepted criteria include involvement in conceiving, planning and executing the scientific work, interpreting the results, and participating in the writing of a substantial part of the manuscript and the approval of the final version that is to be published. In certain areas, some of these criteria, such as actually participating in the writing of the article, prevail over others. For Vera Lúcia Menezes de Oliveira e Paiva, editor of Revista Brasileira de Linguística Aplicada and a professor from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), “the author is he who sits down and writes.” Intellectual production in linguistics is different from that of areas in which there is a major research and development team involved and the results only came about because there were many people involved, she says. “When there is more than one author, the one who signs first is generally the one with the greatest participation. If the participation was equivalent, it is common for the most famous researcher to sign first, but there is no single rule,” she states. The journal that Vera directs does not accept the inclusion of the advisor as co-author of articles derived from dissertations and theses. “When we get an article, we analyze the CV of the authors on the Lattes platform. If it is clear that it is the summary of a thesis and that one of the authors is the advisor, we promptly turn it down, without analyzing it,” he states. “If it is the student who wrote it, then he is the author. Credit can be given to the advisor as such, but not as co-author.”

Legitimate advisor
In the field of medicine, it is acceptable to include the name of the advisor. “If he or she was a legitimate advisor, he helped to think out the article. And all of those who took part in the article physically or intellectually can sign as co-authors,” states Maurício da Rocha and Silva, editor of the journal Clinics, a publication of the USP Medical School, citing the rules of Wame, the World Association of Medical Editors. Rocha e Silva, professor emeritus at the USP Medical School, also tells us that there is still a rule, which he believes to be pernicious, of citing among the authors of an article in the medical area the head of the service where the main researcher works, even if this person did not actually take part in the study. “It’s an unwritten rule. I heard of a researcher who challenged this rule and suffered retaliation,” he stated. “I can’t understand why this is still going on, because it adds nothing to the curriculum of the head of the service, generally a senior professor.” The journal Clinics requires that the article’s main author state the participation of each of those who are signing it. “This tends to discourage the inclusion of names that didn’t take part directly.”

This debate involves new definitions of ethics in research, states Rogério Meneghini, coordinator of the SciELO Brazil library of scientific journals and an expert in scientometrics, the discipline that aims to generate information to stimulate the overcoming of challenges in science. “We’re discussing this issue here at SciELO. There are lots of people who sign having had no actual participation and who get credit just because they hold a senior position in an institution. Sometimes it’s a researcher that went to Brasilia to work in an administrative body and who evidently had no time to take part in the research.” For Meneghini, the subject should be discussed by the newly announced commission created by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) to discuss cases of scientific fraud in Brazil.

The pressure to publish, says Meneghini, is highly exaggerated. He tells us that at the time when he headed the National Laboratory of Synchrotron Light (LNLS) in Campinas, he refused to have his name included in the work done at the institution. “The people under me wanted to put my name on things, but I said that the fact that I had read the article before and had given my opinion did not qualify me to be one of the authors,” he states. Once, he felt pressured when he heard insinuations from an evaluator that there were research leaders at LNLS that did not publish much. However, what concerns Meneghini the most is that Brazilians still receive little coverage in articles in major international networks. “Brazilians sign articles in major networks in the fields of medicine, astrophysics and particle physics, but I have never seen any of them listed first.”