Wednesday, April 07, 2010

60-40 papers

A recent paper I worked on was a 60-40 paper.  That's what I call it when one of the authors does noticeably more of the work.  Really, it could be a 70-30 paper, or some other division; or with multiple authors, it could be a 50-30-20 paper.  But I use the phrase 60-40 paper to refer to all of these situations.  In this case, I was the 40.

60-40 papers aren't at all abnormal, and I've done enough papers not to let it bother me.  When I'm the "40" author, I usually try whenever possible to do what I can to help even things out, for example in the writing/editing/revising stages;  when I'm the "60" author, I recognize that the other authors have contributed, and the paper wouldn't be what it is without them.  I've had amusing discussions with one co-author where we ended up admitting we both thought we were the "40" author for the paper we were writing.  That was a collaboration that lasted for several papers;  apparently, we both thought we were getting a good deal.  I don't think I've been in many collaborations where multiple authors thought they were the "60", but my guess is those could be problematic. 

Fan Chung has a nice page up with advice for graduate students that I think puts the 60-40 issue in perspective.   At the end, under research collaboration:

What about the division of credit?
-- In math, we use the Hardy-Littlewood rule. That is, authors are alphabetically ordered and everyone gets an equal share of credit.
--  The one who has worked the most has learned the most and is therefore in the best position to write more papers on the topic.
--  If you have any bad feeling about sharing the work or the credit, don't collaborate. In mathematics, it is quite okay to do your research independently. (Unlike other areas, you are not obliged to include the person who fund your research.) If the collaboration already has started, the Hardy-Littlewood rule says that it stays a joint work even if the contribution is not of the same proportion. You have a choice of not to collaborate the next time. (If you have many ideas, one paper doesn't matter. If you don't have many ideas, then it really doesn't matter.) You might miss the opportunity for collaboration which can enhance your research and enrich your life. Such opportunity is actually not so easy to cultivate but worth all the efforts involved.

I'd just add a bit to this.  Usually the "60" author will, actually, get more credit in various ways:  usually they're the one to give the talk on the paper, for example.  (It can also come out in letters when really needed.) And it's not so clear that a string of 60-40 collaborations with one author repeatedly being the 60 is so bad;  without the 40, the research or the paper might not ever get done!  Good collaborations are indeed enriching.  To some, particularly graduate students, this approach and attitude might seem strange, but I recommend considering Fan's suggested understanding of collaboration.

To all the co-authors out there who have been the 60 to my 40, I appreciate your putting up with me.  And to all the co-authors who have been the 40 to my 60, as long as we had a good time working on the paper, no worries, and thanks!    

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you don't have many ideas, then it really doesn't matter.

I don't think I agree with what this statement is implying. It's true that a successful researcher often has several good ideas, but for many (not all) successful researchers, there may be just a small handful of (or even just one) great ideas that are truly earth-shattering. As a "20", or make up some other small number, would you really want part of your legacy to be built on a result you don't really feel is yours? I'd feel fraudulent. Personally, if I were in a collaboration which led to P vs. NP being resolved, and my contribution was quite small, I would think it best to withdraw my name from the author list and remain content with an acknowledgment. Or, if I helped Newton prove a lemma somewhere, I'd feel fraudulent getting an equal share of credit for inventing calculus.

Electric Mouse said...

I don't see any problem at all with the "60-40" situation or even "70-30"; life just can't be fair down to the last decimal point.

Now, "95-5", or "95-1-1-1-1" might be a problem... And then there's the matter of the particle physics papers that have 400+ authors...

Anonymous said...

What about 90-10 in CS papers ? Don't you think it is frustrating to remain silent and work with the same guy because he is your advisor and give him the place of the first author because his last name starts with A ?

Anonymous said...

In most cases, my papers have been 70-30 or 80-20. Of course, I'm not in math and we do not follow the Hardy-Littlewood rule.

Anonymous said...

Once you've had some key insights during a joint collaboration, it's very easy to feel that you've contributed the most and that, in retrospect, you could have done it alone.

However, if the collaboration was based on many meetings and discussions that possibly determined why trivial ideas don't work, or in which new ideas (that didn't necessarily work) were discussed, or that generally built intuition, then the thought that you could have done it alone may not be correct.

In any case, you are free to not work with the same people again. If you really feel you don't benefit from their collaboration, don't work with them. But if you do work with someone, then give them the benefit of the doubt, assuming you spent a lot of time together discussing the problem.

Anonymous said...

What if its 99.5-0.5-0-0? The last three claims that your funding is
because of them. They last two even has no idea of what you are trying to do...

Anonymous said...

I've seen plenty of 95-1-1-1-1-1 papers where the 95% part is done by a PhD student and the rest of the authors are there because they are advisors or friends of the advisor. Not good. It significantly reduces the value of being a co-author.

Matthias Gallé said...

Of course the cases of 99-1 are special, and I don't think MM wanted to rise the discussion about the threshold of acknowledgment/co-author.

I have another doubt about the case of a collaboration with several papers, where the amount of work of each co-authors varies a lot depending on the paper. Should all papers be published with the same author order (probably Hardy-Littlewood) or should it be re-discussed for each paper?

Anonymous said...

The last few comments imply that very lopsided co-authorships arise with advisors taking credit they shouldn't.

There are other circumstances that seem more common where the contributions can be very lopsided.

* Advisor gives problem to student who makes essentially no progress after some extended time - nothing more than the trivial ideas that the advisor mentioned the first day when introducing the problem. Student or advisor brings in postdoc who has the key idea that solves the basic question and presents it in a joint meeting. In that meeting advisor makes a few useful observations that extend the postdoc's work. All three become authors. Student writes first draft of paper. Postdoc completely rewrites. Student gives presentation.

* Several postdocs/interns are sitting around in a room playing around with a problem. Each is blurting out ideas at various times. One of them ends up making only minor comments that have nothing to do with either shooting down ideas or coming up with new ones. All become co-authors.

Anonymous said...

"Several postdocs/interns are sitting around in a room playing around with a problem. Each is blurting out ideas at various times. One of them ends up making only minor comments that have nothing to do with either shooting down ideas or coming up with new ones. All become co-authors."

So the one who is "doing nothing" gets invited back to subsequent planned meetings/email discussions to discuss the problem?

Or is the problem just solved in one sitting?

If it is the latter case, maybe it isn't such a hard problem anyway.

In the former case, there is a conscious choice to include him/her, so why was that choice made if their contribution is so irrelevant?

Rosca Zimmerman (Pseudonym) said...

I have been written a lot of collaborative papers (in engineering) and always have dreaded the moment when we have to decide the author ordering. I have always tried to calm the situation down and offered my name to be moved down for (a) I sometimes really am not sure how to quantify the contributions of different people and (b) I really value my collaborators a lot and cherish their co-authorship.

On the same note, when some one tell me how would you decide the 60 and 40 in the following case:

Person A spends 4 months on a problem, makes some headway but then realizes that the answer is not satisfactory. Person B gets involved in it, finds a way to solve the deadlock. So who is 60 and who is 40? If Person A had not told Person B about the problem and filled him on the prior art and what did NOT work, could Person B do it alone? On the other hand, if Person B had not solved the deadlock, Person A had nothing to report. In my case, being a junior guy vying to get attention, I always think that I am 60 whether I am A or B :) (although I never allow it to introduce bad blood). What is your opinion of this though? Is there always that A or B is 60?

fahad said...

Interesting thread.

I was wondering how do people on the other end (recruiters etc.) see papers with multiple authors. How do they determine the contribution of an author in a paper? Do they rely on the ordering of names, or reference letters to reveal more information?

Anonymous said...

What if two students write a paper together? How would reference letters ever reveal anything?

Also, what if you work with a professor and had a big contribution. The professor may not want to say anything implying that he did less than equal work. Since letters are confidential, how do you know what was said?

Anonymous said...

The only thing I don't like about unequal collaborations is when I'm the "60" and my "40" collaborators keep talking about how they feel like they didn't do anything. I guess that's partly because as the "60", I'm usually organizing everything as well, which is obviously more work with a group of collaborators than with a single author.

I mean, I'm intentionally making more work for myself to include you in the work, so obviously you must be doing something valuable, right?

Alan Fekete said...

Several comments have mentioned cases of authors whose contribution was funding (only). At my university (Sydney University in Australia) this is explicitly forbidden by policy. All authors must have made an important intellectual contribution to the work, and all take responsibility for the conclusions.

Anonymous said...

I have seen some papers and talked to some researchers where they had no clue about some portion{or in one case complete} paper.

It is true that for the researcher it might not matter. But what about the community as such.

I am also interested in hearing about how the authorship is considered by the hiring people.

Anonymous said...

Coauthorship considerations are important for hiring, especially if you have only a few publications. It is usually addressed in the letters, though. It is also good to have at least a couple good-quality single-author papers to remove any doubts.

take3 said...

I believe that the aim should be to consistently produce good papers, so it really wouldnt matter if you didnt get the exact credit for one particular paper.

Finally, I disagree with some that the PI's name shouldnt be included by default. The seeds of the intellectual contribution are sowed in the grant application.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating discussion.

I have to say, I think in TCS we are a bit too liberal with authorship. At the beginning (as a student), one finds it nice because one can get pulled into a project, make a small but significant contribution, and still get co-authorship. And this aspect of it is nice (although it does make evaluations difficult sometimes).

As one stays in the field longer, however, one finds more and more senior researchers looking to "grab" a 10% contribution on a substantially completed project just so they can get co-authorship. And because this is the convention in the field, there is no real way to refuse.

Our of curiosity, I wonder how many people have turned down co-authorship on a paper when offered because they viewed their own contribution as not significant enough. (I've done it several times.)

Anonymous said...

Fascinating discussion.

I have to say, I think in TCS we are a bit too liberal with authorship. At the beginning (as a student), one finds it nice because one can get pulled into a project, make a small but significant contribution, and still get co-authorship. And this aspect of it is nice (although it does make evaluations difficult sometimes).

As one stays in the field longer, however, one finds more and more senior researchers looking to "grab" a 10% contribution on a substantially completed project just so they can get co-authorship. And because this is the convention in the field, there is no real way to refuse.

Our of curiosity, I wonder how many people have turned down co-authorship on a paper when offered because they viewed their own contribution as insignificant. (I've done it several times.)

Anonymous said...

The following happens in my field, I do not know about others. Once he a person become senior, what he does and knows best is to just write proposals. He hires some PhDs and Post-docs. They work hard and the senior researcher just becomes a co author. His only contribution is where "a", "the" is missing in the paper. But this gives him papers and he can write more papers based on it. Then this like a positive feedback where he writes more proposals, more publications.
Its better to call such a person a funding mafia.

I read in some comment that PI's name should be included. I disagree. Even the PI may not be PI himself. Probably the PI is just putting together the ideas of all his post docs.


What happens is that if a person gets lot of funding, he also get lot of respect, so called visibility, and attention (at least in my community). This is a NOT a healthy system. In my opinion, such a person should be closely scrutinized. It should be made sure
whether the person is actually doing some research or he is just a funding mafia.

Though, the above holds for majority of senior researchers, there are few who are actually involved in doing good and lot of research. This number is very tiny though, very very tiny.

Anonymous said...

We have a great thread going on. I believe in reality the authorship business is much more murkier than simply 60-40. But good that people are speaking about it.

Anonymous said...

I know of a professor that primarily 'collaborates' with Chinese researchers. All he does is editing and he gets tonnes of papers -- with mixed quality of course.

Anonymous said...

"In any case, you are free to not work with the same people again. If you really feel you don't benefit from their collaboration, don't work with them. But if you do work with someone, then give them the benefit of the doubt, assuming you spent a lot of time together discussing the problem."

I just had a collaboration in which I gave someone the benefit of the doubt because of our numerous conversations, although the collaborator did not have any specific ideas or technical contributions to the paper. However, a few months later he had a nice idea related to the same topic, told me the idea, which I thought was great and we discussed it. Then he worked on the problem secretively with someone else, didn't give me the opportunity to contribute and didn't tell me his progress when I directly asked about the project. I recently found out the paper was accepted to a conference. I feel like I've been somewhat screwed because I was generous on giving him credit and he then excluded me from the followup project. Is this ethical? Are there any ideas on how to deal with this situation? Do I remove his name from the journal version of the original paper?