In a scientific paper, the area under the title where the authors are listed is more important than you might think. Obviously, each person listed as an author has (probably) contributed to the paper in some way. There are also often asterisks and other symbols leading to footnotes at the bottom of the first page that tell you which university each author is from. That much you could probably figure out on your own. But there’s a whole snarl of politics involved in how the authors arrange their names. The first name on the paper is usually the person who did the most work on it. This person is typically a graduate student or a post doc (short for post-doctoral, a post doc is someone who has gotten their PhD, but is not yet in charge of a lab).
The first author is not always the most important author in the list, however. By this I mean that if you google their name, (or use a service that lets you search through scientific journals, such as Pubmed) you might not find much. The head honcho working on the paper is actually more likely to be the last author listed. Google the last author’s name, and you can probably find the website of the lab that worked on the paper fairly quickly.
The head of a lab is often called a PI for principal investigator. You might think of them as a boss, but it might be more accurate to think of a PI as a manager or agent who has his or her fingers in everything, trying to get it to work. A PI can have a lot of power, depending on how much money his or her lab can generate, but they rarely have the power of a CEO. Even in the case of labs that work in the private sector, CEOs don’t have the time to write scientific papers and PIs don’t have the time to take care of high level corporate decisions.
A PI has to keep track of all the scientists he or she is in charge of and find resources to ensure that the lab can continue operating. Finding resources means writing innumerable grant proposals and promoting research by submitting posters and giving talks at conventions. PIs don’t generally get to do the actual experiments much at all, but they have to know everything that’s going on, and the work couldn’t be done without them. So to make a gardening analogy, the last name is usually the one responsible for providing the soil and seed for the paper, while the first name is the one who waters it and makes sure it’s healthy.
The other names in the author area may be of varying importance. In papers written by an extensive team of scientists there may be hundreds of names in the author area, some of which might not even have had anything to do with the work published. This is because by being part of a team the scientists agree amongst themselves to share credit for any discoveries that the team makes. Which sounds nice, but it is important not to make the mistake of thinking that everyone listed agrees 100% with what’s in the article.
You might also have people listed as authors who might not have even met the other authors. This can happen in situations where someone gathers data, but leaves the organization before anything can be done with it.
There is also sometimes space in a paper for people who have helped, but may not have done enough to warrant being a full author. Unfortunately because of the large egos involved in science, sometimes someone who really deserves to be a full author gets shoved into this space. You might imagine a beleaguered graduate student, passionate for his subject, yet perhaps socially inept, toiling away at his experiments until he finally has enough data to reach a conclusion. He writes the paper, following all the guidelines and diligently proofreading for grammar mistakes. He gives his paper, his baby, to his PI, thinking now, finally, he will get the recognition he deserves. Only instead of being the first author, the PI puts his friend in as the first author, puts his name as the last author and gives the grad student an honorable mention. The movie Dark Matter is a chilling depiction of this scenario.
There are several organizations, including the Office of Research Integrity (ORI started in June 1992), that are in charge of confronting false author attribution as well as several other forms of misconduct. This is good, but on the downside the very fact such organizations are necessary speaks to how prevalent the problem is. A survey conducted by Eastwood, S et al (referenced here) , where postdocs and new PIs were asked to self-report their conduct showed that 41% said they would list someone as an author for being a friend or for funding them in the future. And the ORI reports that the number of reported cases of general misconduct (of which author mis-attribution is a part) has been rising, albeit with several large peaks and valleys from 159 in 1996 to 286 in 2010.
Does this mean that all scientists are crooks? No. Does this mean science can’t be trusted? Well, to an extent, yes. But science shouldn’t be trusted. Any information a paper relates should be tested and retested independently not just because sometimes scientists misbehave, but because the information may be incomplete or inaccurate.
If popular media could understand this a little better, I think there would be a lot less confusion about the various studies that come out. Next time you see a news report that reads “Scientists say…” you should ask “Which scientists?”