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  • Writer's pictureEmmanuel G Escobar

I gave away my position as leading author in a Nature paper

It’s not secret that publishing is the force that drives most if not all academic research. But in the world of publishing academic work, the opinions of those who are at the backbones of these research articles are rarely discussed. So, why did I give away my position as first author in a manuscript? I will try to address this here, whilst briefly explaining the the behind the scenes to academic research.

First of all, whilst all research may one day be published, there are various timeframes in which work will be released to the public. I use “public” here loosely, because there are still several journals that restrict access to only paid subscribers. Also, some projects involve long years of continuous research to be able to compile that information into an impactful manuscript, while other projects run on short term goals that are easier to summarise into a story every so often. Apart from that, there’s the pressure from the supervisors and their bosses of when to publish, the appearance factors of new papers being released to match outputs of the project grant, and the perceived need for early career researchers to publish at the start of their careers. There’s also the experience factor; different academics, and their experience coming across an individual factors that cannot be generalised, whereby they have their own mentalities of when it is okay to publish and what should be published. Some are maintaining a good stream of outputs every year, and others not taking that much of a priority themselves, and instead depending on early career researchers leading the manuscripts. Established professors usually have involvement in the broader terms of a project and they are involved in the manuscript as internal reviewers of the work or because their lab members have been involved in the writing or data collection and analysis. On top of this, there is the factor of how many research streams a project supervisor or a research team works on at a single time. However, at the key of scientific research, I believe where you really see the benefit of publications, is when collaborations are formed by sources people with a mix of expertise.

This latter point is very important because it goes into the pitfall of working on a project in academic research. About 40% of the time, the outcomes of the planned work don’t match that that is anticipated, and this percentage can vary quite a lot depending on the nature of the work. What I am trying to say here basically means that because of how individuals plan their own contributions to a project and how that project is originally planned, are two independent routes. In my experience, the researcher has the final input into the life of a project, without going as far as saying that they can do whatever they want. The problem that arises here is the pressure for early career researchers to make a career out of something that they know very little of. Yes, we might know the general science and have the interest in it, but doing research for a higher standing academic is no different than selling a car for a well known manufacturer. We don’t make the cars, but will try to sell the hell out of them and proudly, outshining the competition. This places researchers in the poor position of limited control, while the system expects them to be in control and push forward with new research directions. The reality is that no more than 0.05% of total early career researchers will push forward to have their own grants and specialising on something that is theirs. No different to gaining territory and setting out dominance. Those with more specialised services are also more likely to gain independency, and those with good connections and who know how to play the system, will be promoted quicker. But promotion does not mean that these individuals are overall more accomplished in other parts of an academic leader, and come across more by their ability to translate projects into impact manuscripts, which is a proxy for getting exposure for grant writing.

The rest of us in the system are nothing more than pawns in a single sided chess game. We represent the gains in academic grants from the perspective of the grant providers and leaders of the project, but also represent the university as enablers of our research careers. And, we represent ourselves, despite everything that tells us that getting a career in academic research is doomed from the start. But, there are several people that make it in this system, and they do so because they have the drive and the energy to bypass all the attitudes of an early career researcher. And they push through several disadvantages that comes from being a researcher at the start. And it falls down to what others see that a PhD graduate can be and what a PhD graduate thinks they are. In a way, this is the biggest limitation to a researcher in academia, it is the very own desire to specialise that equates to a failure to be independent. Research shouldn’t be simple the action of doing work in a way that is investigative, but also take action of all other aspects of general innovation work. It is the social aspect of forming collaborations, maintaining good relations with collaborations, and mixing interests and skills into something that one can make their own.

The inability to make another’s inspiration my guide to improve my team’s performance and project outcomes, was the biggest obstacle for me to face. Here I am referring to following the views of my line manager as views of my own, which can be done, but does not represent my own desire. It’s the belief that I am solely a researcher with no motivation to do anything else, and when that motivation is shown, it doesn’t fit to the expected standards of the academic. This is actual feedback that I received, with some in the lab group even saying that some of my suggestions were not worth pursuing because it depended on “learning new things”. So, my first reason why I passed the opportunity to be listed as the first author is to be rebellious and not identify by the system who had failed to identify me as an individual. Also, to place that an early career researcher, generally needing of first authorships, that it really doesn’t matter. Yes, I don’t depend for research articles to represent my capabilities as a researcher, which makes this decision easier to pass in my case, but it is something that I know personally to be important to several other people. And quite frankly, first author listing doesn’t matter, but there is a perceived importance to it within in the system, and while it doesn’t matter in the sense that makes the work any more or less important, there are consequences when leading a research career.

The most important reason for doing this is out of protection to myself and fulfil my ethical duty in declaring that I did not write or contribute to the manuscript. My position as the ‘junior’ researcher whose direct research funded by the grant that is supporting that manuscript should be showcased by the name of that awardee a position as leading author. This represents an output of the money received to carry out the research and fund my job. But again, this has no implications to the validity of the research, and with my contributions being very minimal, the leading author should be the one whose opinions are written in the paper. While I can agree with some to my capacity of understanding, I cannot be held liable for anything else that is stated that is not my writing. Whether the first listed author understands their ethical responsibility in this case, I don’t know that, and I doubt many people in academic research think of that when making a decision to the author list. I refer to myself as junior not by personal choice, but by the way my former line manager had described me early from the start. Their labelling attitude overshadowed my other experience in team relationship management and desire to work more within the lines of improving working efficiency and standards within the workplace.

What people will remember in academia is the first person that is listed on the author list; that is how students will reference the text in their work and how established researchers will reference their manuscripts. Under that expression of the work done by the team that did the work, the scientist will acknowledge the effort that everyone who is listed has made, while those that understand the system well, will also know that some of the heavyweight listed authors are likely in there because of the exposure they give to the manuscript and the project. It doesn’t say anything about the value of the researcher behind the words written, and here again is why I do not want to be remembered as the person who is listed first in a Nature Plants paper. I prefer to be understood as a supporting role, as someone who contributed equally to an impactful result, but not as far as to say that I demonstrated that impact. This is the basis for team collaboration; where the limits of one individual are picked up and enhanced by another, essentially creating equal opportunity for both. As soon as this aspect is respected amongst all researcher groups, will we start seeing the comeback of science as a team-growing environment, and not that of the growth of one single individual who is deemed right by the system (the supervisors and their connections). 


As supporting role of the manuscript, I led the biochemical analyses with the help of a lab technician. This contributed to over 3000 cell-based assays over the course of 3 months, not including the assays to optimise the method, which include about 2,500 assays. In total, this time is that of working full time for 11 months. The leading author (listed) took that information and translated into mathematical models that showcase the impact to real-world conditions. Then they led the discussion. That is why they deserve the first listed position; they took work that could have ended in another journal, but magnified it into something greater that has broader implications and has now the exposure to reach more people. This is my line of thinking, beyond that is required for someone in my position, because it is my job to look at the bigger picture–this is not taught or learnt in academia, but working in industry. And I wanted to showcase this to my group.


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