When is a thank you just not enough?

I bet there is an interesting back story to this little episode. In January a neat communication appeared in JACS  describing “Small-Molecule Inducer of Beta Cell Proliferation Identified by High-Throughput Screening“. Basically the authors have induced the growth of cells that produce insulin, so opening up a possible route to cure Type 1 diabetes. Intersting enough, but not the subject of this post. I’m more concerned with the correction published last week. It seems that 20 authors wasn’t quite enough. Eric C. Peters probably wasn’t happy about being left languishing in the acknowledgements and having to be content with a thank you for experimental support.  So come March he got promoted to the author list, leaving John Walker left all alone in the acknowledgements. You’ve got to feel sorry for him (unless the authors are referring to a whisky at the end of the day), how come he’s the only one left with a hat tip and no place on the front page? Especially given that its difficult to imagine what sort of contribution would warrant an acknowledgement on a communication’s worth of work (although granted that in this case there is and additional 12 pages of supporting info) as opposed to less than a 5% share of the author list.

Anyway this rather unusual correction got me thinking. What do you have to contribute to a study before you are entitled to a place on the paper’s author list? Or when does an acknowledgment suffice? My thinking is that anyone who’s made a vital contribution should be named as an author, this includes all sorts of technical support. For example I’ve worked on plenty of projects where lab technicians have prepared protein samples from bacterial cultures. In this case I’d say its pretty clear cut, the technician spent several days making samples for me to do my measurements on, so they get to be an author. However, I know of plenty of places where the same technician would have to make do with an acknowledgement (if that). Maybe the argument is that he/she hasn’t made an intellectual contribution and are merely conducting a routine role, but the same thing could be said for many of the procedures carried out by grad students.

Then what about the flip side? When is a spot on author list too much?

One Comment

  1. I always err on the side of more coauthors, including techs, undergrads, etc. Not giving credit for contributions is petty. If you are worried about diluting your brand with too many coauthors, you should probably stop writing that paper and make an appointment with a therapist.

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