Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Author Contributions? Epic Fail, or Relational Success

By Kai Chan for CHANS Lab Views

This is (an extra) part of a series, How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps (why Author Contributions at the proposal stage? Because you need to think about these issues early: read on!)

Who did what? Who deserves the real credit, and who came along for the ride? Who contributed what %?

Author Contributions statements for papers, theses, and tenure files are far more important than they might seem. Writing these little statements well is also far more difficult than it appears. I learned this the hard way, with an epic fail at one of the most important junctures of my professional career.

This difficulty isn’t helped by understandable but mistaken notions that these statements are about the ‘real credit’ or percent contributions.

I was going up for promotion—a crucial moment in an academic’s career. My director, who had to write the crucial departmental letter that would accompany my file to the higher levels at the university, was also a coauthor on one of the articles I submitted. I was directed to write a statement clarifying my contributions to the papers. I interpreted it as “Show that this was mostly your work—that you brought the key ingredients, not your coauthors”. Error #1.

My director/coauthor flagged a concern. Ouch. I reread the statement to understand. It started with my contributions, and followed with my coauthor’s, almost as if these were an afterthought barely worth mentioning. I also averaged-up—that is, if I felt I did most of a task (e.g., designing the analysis), I assigned it to myself. E.g., “I designed and executed the analysis, I wrote the paper. My coauthor edited.” Now imagining my coauthor’s perspective, my heart surged, my face flushed, and shame and disgust washed over me. What I wrote wasn't false, but it was certainly not an equal representation of both sets of contributions. It oriented around mine, because that's how I understood the task (wrongly).

The irony was palpable. I had already become excited about relational values (preferences, principles and virtues associated with human relationships involving nature; see also here), and I had been consciously thinking relationally in general. That is, I had been thinking first about how actions reflected and built appropriate relationships, and only second how they yielded positive or negative consequences. Here, I clearly failed: I had unconsciously treated the authorship statement as a means to the end of impressing reviewers, entirely missing their crucial contributions to building or eroding the relationships I sought with cherished colleagues.


One might think, following such a teachable moment of shame, that I would have written flawless Author Contributions statements ever since. I wish I could say that were true. I don’t normally make the same mistake twice, but Author Contribution statements are full of ways to fail.

If we think of the hours spent directly on the manuscript,
we may think like this. But that doesn't tell the full story.

More recently, the same cherished coauthor and I were wrapping up a paper many years in the making (almost a decade). Finally, it was time to write an author contributions statement. I was conscious to err on the side of generosity. I listed our contributions together (not mine first). I emphasized shared contributions to tasks wherever it seemed appropriate. But by my recollection, I had approached my coauthor with the idea, and indeed, with a draft of what I felt we needed to say, and she had responded to that. So, I wrote something like, “KC wrote the first draft.”

It was déjà vu when my coauthor responded with edits and comments, with her recollection that we co-wrote the first draft. My coauthor pointed out that it had been her idea to include an empirical component at all. I had started counting ‘first draft’ from even before there had been an empirical component (which was now the central identity of the paper). The paper sure was different back then, without its central contribution. Point taken, absolutely we co-wrote the first real draft of the current paper.

Worse, though, my mind full of the many hundreds of hours that I spent coding papers and refining the analysis without troubling my coauthor, I claimed credit for designing the analysis. She contested that, politely and respectfully, as always. When I wrote the statement, I didn’t even remember that it had been my coauthor’s idea to do an analysis, and indeed that we had discussed some of the major codes right at the outset. It wasn’t a long, involved or contentious conversation, so it didn’t even spring to mind. But it clearly structured everything that followed.

Double ugh.

This time, I had been thinking consciously with the lessons from last time. I had thought I was being generous. But my thinking was skewed by my memory, which was rooted in hours spent and emotion-laden moments as indicators of contributions. Key structural conversations from many years ago were overlooked.

It’s so much easier to remember one’s own contributions than others. I think in our own minds, others’ contributions often become momentary guidance in a journey that we travelled mostly solo.

Subconsciously, I was thinking about percent contributions as hours spent on the paper. In contrast, I had consciously brought my coauthor on board because I knew that she would leverage countless hours of her reading and thinking of different but complementary literatures into a focused contribution on the manuscript. And I knew that this focused contribution might enable the paper to be rich and beautiful.

I’ve also had experiences on the other side, of course, because I think it’s hardest for students to see their supervisor’s contributions because they structure what follows. One wonderful student had joined me to do a project that I had envisioned well before the student’s degree. He had first written about my contributions as the same as other coauthors (e.g., editing drafts). These other coauthors were ones I had suggested as committee members, while helping this student envision what the project could look like and how it could make a great contribution to the literature and to problems that we both seemed to care about (based on his Critical Ingredients document). He didn’t mean to diminish my contributions, they just weren’t that visible to him, because they were so structural as to be part of the context.

I had another student—among the most principled, fairest people I know—who wrote that she ‘wrote the paper’. The paper was a Google doc with a bunch of notes when she invited myself and a coauthor in to give it structure, direction, themes, and relevant literatures. Yes, she typed most of the words, and of course she led the project and clearly deserves first authorship. But for me, ‘wrote the paper’ now means ‘gave shape to the main ideas in a complete good draft’.

The whole notion of percent contributions makes zero sense to me, even though it’s explicitly requested by some journals and grant agencies (others are more progressive, e.g., CRediT, the Contributor Roles Taxonomy). There is no single dimension by which one can measure author contributions on a paper. A paper should be more than the sum of the parts; coauthorship shouldn’t replace work, but rather shape the whole paper.

Coauthorship therefore shouldn’t be measured in time spent, but our memories lead us that way.

Good notes are crucial here, to record others’ contributions along the way. Then can we write Author Contribution statements that reflect how a paper is a beautiful symphony of ideas from a team.

A great strategy, which can avoid a lot of awkwardness, is to discuss or specify the responsibilities at the outset. Personally, I generally avoid pre-structuring contributions so as to maintain an organic adaptive process, but it’s great to discuss the options.

Then we can write statements that depict research as a deeply relational process, and which further build these collaborative relationships as being of more than instrumental value.

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.

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