My last post, on what I called "60-40" papers, where one author does non-trivially more of the work than the other(s), seems to have generated some interesting comments, worth following up on. There seem to be multiple issues in the comments that, to me, appear essentially orthogonal:
1) How does the community properly assign credit for 60-40 papers? Should we use author ordering or some other mechanism to assign credit?
2) What about advisors who do minimal to zero work but put their name on the paper?
3) At what point has a person involved in the project done so little work that they should not be included as an author (by either withdrawing willingly, or possibly by being told "you're not an author"). (I think of this as separate from the "advisor" issue.)
Let me start with item 1, assigning credit. I promoted the approach used in theory (derived, apparently, from mathematics) of alphabetical order, claiming credit comes out through things like letters and who gives the talk, and is determined more clearly over the course of a career. Many question this; indeed, many other fields use entirely different systems. Many fields use author order to signal the level of contribution in some way, so that being "first author" has significant meaning. At the extreme, the journal Nature, for example, suggests that author contributions should be fully specified in each article in their guide to authors:
"Author Contributions: authors are required to include a statement to specify the contributions of each co-author. The statement can be up to several sentences long, describing the tasks of individual authors referred to by their initials."
Graduate student and postdocs, in particular, are more concerned with systems that clarify credit, and this is understandable. They have short career track records, and want a job; making sure that they get their proper credit often seems, to them, quite imperative.
I'd like to defend the alphabetical, no-explicit-credit-assigned system, and then provide a couple of stories. (If you find that indulgent, you can skip the stories.)
One philosophical approach is to try to start from a blank slate. Forget about your current situation, and how your field does things. Your starting point is that you're just starting a career in science. What sort of system do you want to use? I'd argue you'd want to use a system that would lead to long-lasting, productive collaborations; that would have minimal overhead; and that would still provide meaningful ways of calibrating people over appropriate time periods. I think pure alphabetical does that. It removes the need to fight over (or even discuss) who contributed exactly what, leading more easily to frequent and repeated collaboration. To be clear, I have a strong bias: collaborations, I think, are great for scientific production, and on the whole make research much more fun. Alphabetical order is clearly easy. And while it's weak on allowing someone to find out how much each individual author contributed to a specific multi-author paper, over the course of several papers, I think the calibration works, especially when augmented with additional information such as letters in job searches and promotion cases. Further, it's not clear that other systems are really stronger in terms of assigning credit. Authors can disagree on contributions -- how does this get settled, and what does it do to future collaborations; in multi-author situations where order ostensibly matters many advisors will game the system, for example by putting students first regardless of their contribution in order to prep them for the job market or out of professional courtesy; and it's not clear how, for example, to value different types of contributions, like ideas vs. data collection and analysis. My bias is that the blank slate scientist starting their career would pick the alphabetical order system.
I have at least one data point for this conclusion: myself. (Here's where the stories start.) In graduate school, a bunch of us students got together and wrote a paper. This was a case where I was definitely the 60 author, and I thought it would be best if I was first author. The other students didn't object, but since I knew it wasn't standard for theory, I asked my advisor. (He wasn't a co-author for this paper, so his view was not biased in that regard.) He told me it was my choice, but that I needed to recognize the following: I would possibly get more credit for this paper, but, from then on, I would have adopted a system where, for every paper, I'd have to face the possibility of constructing the author order with my co-authors. Did I want to have that discussion for every paper down the line? I went with alphabetical order and have never looked back. I always recommend alphabetical order, although when I work with people in other areas I do defer to whatever system they want to use, and tell them they can put me wherever they like in the ordering. (It is true that, with tenure, one can care much, much less about such things.)
On the other side, another story. When I applied for my CAREER grant, apparently I was on the borderline, and it took quite some time to get the final word. I asked the NSF officer for feedback -- especially in case I needed to resubmit. (Apparently, enough money came through in the end to fund me.) One thing he said was that a lot of my work had been co-authored with very talented people, and it wasn't clear what my contributions were. This was a case where, obviously, there were no recommendation letters to draw from. Still, I was offended then by the comment, and looking back I still find it ridiculous. At that point, I'd written multiple papers with these other authors (who were not my advisor) -- clearly they thought I was contributing something worthwhile. And why was the assumption that they were the 60 contributor, instead of me? It's not clear that using author ordering would have helped in this case, or that such cases are at all frequent. But it does help me understand alternative points of view on the underlying question.