Conventions, authorship, and fields of study

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Sandra Porter

In academic biology, scientific publications are a serious thing. People battle over positions in the author list and debate endlessly over who should be on the paper and who should not.

The funny thing is that sometimes we think that our rules and standards apply to other fields of science and assume that our conventions are, well, conventional.

If they're true for us, they must be true everywhere, right?

I was surprised, for example, when I learned that one of our (former) programmers didn't know there was a difference between peer-reviewed publications and the white papers that companies write to describe their technology.

But that's true for most people. I think that it's only scientists who assume that this is common knowledge, probably because we work so hard to get those precious publications.

Back to the funny difference between fields. At least a couple of commenters on a previous post were lamenting issues with authorship order. It's a funny thing, but the order isn't as clear cut as we think.

In biology and other fields, the most important positions in the list of authors are the first and the last.

For biologists, the first author on a paper is the person who did most of the work and wrote the paper. The last author is the one with the most seniority, who heads up the lab and writes the grants.

In computer science, however, this is reversed. The person who heads up the lab is always listed first and the person who wrote the paper is listed last.

It's just one of those sociological things that makes collaborations fun.