Sunday, July 06, 2008

Nope, you win.

Yesterday I updated my RSS reader for the first time in about 6 months. I don't usually read science articles this way, but once upon a time I set up a bunch of automatic searches for friends and topics I care about most.

In the last 6 months, my advisor was listed on 20 publications. None of them were mine. Nevermind that I started delivering drafts of my paper more than 6 months ago, and started getting feedback after 4 months of that.

Another friend also had 20 papers from his relatively young lab as a new professor. I'm so proud!


While looking over these lists, I noticed something interesting: despite having no new first-author publications, MrPhD has now surpassed me in the grand total of publications, because he has more papers on which he is a middle author.

For almost every project in his lab that he has contributed to, MrPhD was made an author. He says they usually tell him up front that he'll be an author.

I, on the other hand, have learned to ask, or risk wasting my time, when I should be working on my own projects. This is true regardless of whose lab wants my help (my own or someone else's).

I am often told I'm being greedy when I ask up front whether I'll be an author. But I'm often asked to 'help' by doing time-consuming work that is not always acknowledged as traditionally worthy of authorship (i.e. not comprising a figure).

My uncredited contributions in the past have ranged from doing pilot experiments that formed the basis for a high-impact paper, to developing a method from scratch, to analyzing other people's data sets.

So now sometimes I ask.

And sometimes when I ask about authorship, they get mad and call me names, but ultimately make me an author anyway.

Did I win there?

Nope, not really. Middle-authorship won't help me that much, and all I've done is reinforce my reputation for being Difficult.

Another damned-if-you-do-or-don't. And probably doesn't do much to help any future YFSs those people might consider having as collaborators.

So I've learned it's sometimes better to just not 'help' people who do not offer me authorship up front.

Asking just gets me in trouble, but not asking gets me nowhere.

So then I just say I'm too busy, sorry.

But that also tags me as Difficult while Joe Schmoe, who makes time to help AND gets co-authorship, is a Team Player.

I have to wonder why I'm constantly asked to provide scientific support for free.
When MrPhD contributes similarly, at least he gets 'paid.'

I'd be a Team Player too if I got paid to do it.


In the last few years, there were a few of what I'll call Alliances among a handful of male postdocs in our department, who consistently listed each other as co-authors on all their papers, and thus ended up with many more publications on their CVs than they would have had otherwise. In most cases, they contributed small things to each others' work (usually not more than 1 figure worth).

They all have jobs now. Two got multiple first-author papers, and they're both at top-tier places.

The other three got their one requisite biggish first-author paper and several middle-author credits. They all ended up with decent jobs at places I would not mind working.


I was thinking about this again because the other day I overheard a senior grad student (SGS) conferring with Newest Male Postdoc (NMP) about some experiments that NMP is apparently doing for SGS's latest paper.

I noticed because I had offered, about a year ago, to help SGS do these kinds of experiments. As it is, now I'm too busy anyway.

But how much do you wanna bet that NMP will be listed on this paper as a co-author?

Meanwhile I'm helping Newest Female Postdoc (NFP) with her experiments and fully expecting... an acknowledgment. If I'm lucky.

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At 4:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have noticed what you described many times in my work.
Finally, I decided to use following approach:
- if something is really interesting FOR ME, I help without discussing co-authorship upfront and I will start discussing it when project takes a lot of my time (more than 10% in long run)
- if something is not so interesting but takes like 5 minutes of my time (I am really good in one technique, what takes me 5 minutes takes other people days or weeks) I help without discussing co-authorship upfront and of course surprise-surprise rarely I get even an acknowledgment :), but this decision is made usually on the level of PIs, not postdocs or graduate students, so I treat this work as a type of long-run investment in people (postdocs and students who help me when I need some small or not so small things and some of them I can imagine as a future collaborators when they become independent)
- if something is time-consuming, difficult and sometimes boring, I discuss authorship upfront if I know that people involved will not trow tantrums, otherwise I am too busy :) even if I am not :)

At 7:28 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

While I don't doubt what are you labeling as sexism does occur when it comes to determining authorship, I personally have not encountered it.

Perhaps this has less to do with the climate at LargeU (fairly well known for various sexist...erm...issues that have occurred over the years) and more to do with luck.

The Boss is also recently tenured (and often burned in the past in regards to authorship), so at least for our group, this new generation of scientists is being taught to reward work with authorship.

At 7:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG, I can totally relate to this. My husband has more publications than I do, thanks to being a middle author on everything he's involved in whereas I am almost always left out of even the Acknowledgements even if I contributed intellectually or trained people on the very things the paper depended on. That's fine and good for my husband (and I am happy for him) but it seems very unfair to be in my situation. Second, the male cohorts in the lab have teamed up with all the other male cohorts in the lab to the point where they each have a finger in every pie (aka future paper). They look out for each other in unspoken ways but I am always left out of it, even if I inquire. I am one of 2 female postdocs in the lab, and the other postdoc is not in a related area (and is also psychotic) so we do not work with each other.

Men who have the same job or career path never have to deal with the same situations and standards women have to deal with.

At 9:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I usually don't think of possible authorship when I help out a peer. I usually consider their expertise and whether they can help me out at another point in time. This has worked out well for me, since my field is interdisciplinary, and I am not an expert in all things.

If something takes more than a couple hours and have no benefit to me, then I usually would say no or point them to another resource.

At 12:31 AM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...

Commiserations, that really sucks. I know that problem a bit since I usually work alone, and therefore have less publications than the guys who band together in "publication gangs" where they all put each others names on their papers.

Your description of being used without getting credit (coauthorship), while `the boys' are rubbing each others backs, illustrates well the social crap that plays such a big role in academia these days. There is this medieval belief in a `natural order of things' where everyone has their place, and those who consider themselves the `gentry' regard it as completely natural to exploit the `serfs', while rubbing the backs of their fellow gents. Women are typically seen as a kind of serf (i.e., expected to play a subservient role) just as in medieval times.

If serfs do good work and become accomplished it usually doesn't help them advance to a higher station in life, just makes them more useful for exploiting.

It wouldn't occur to a member of the gentry to give credit to a serf in the way that he would for a fellow gent, and if the serf was so bold as to ask for it he/she would no doubt be seen as `difficult' (for not knowing his/her place).

I guess the only hope for us serfs is that at some level the science will still be more important than the social crap, so that if we do something significant enough in science it will be recognized and rewarded. The bar for that is pretty high though, since it would be an affront against the natural order of things in the eyes of the powers-that-be, and they wouldn't like that one bit.

Great post though. In future, any job committee member who wants to explain to a colleague why applications from women need to be considered more carefully (e.g., not just counting up number of publications) just has to direct him to this post and he will be able to see the problems very clearly.

At 3:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a YFS, I must advise you to not care about the whole "difficult" thing and discuss/demand authorship on your contributions. Papers are our $$ and there is no shame in asking for your work's worth. It's a very subtle game, but one you MUST play in some way. I was only once not listed as author when it was agreed I would be and now I know to not work with that person again as I don't trust them. In some cases, I brought up authorship on projects at the very start and got some quizzical looks from other trainees, probably thinking "wow, what a paper-obsessed bitch!". The end result is, who cares?! If I know I will be an author on a paper, I do the work. If I ask/allow someone to be a coauthor I demand the work from them. Sure it's not easy to talk about these things, just like money...

I do realise there is a gender issue but I think the sooner you grasp control of your own life as much as you can, the better you will feel and your career will go in a better direction. I read a lot of your blog, even though I don't comment much. I think you have the passion and perhaps the talent to become a great scientist but so much of your energy is right now buried under negativity. I am not saying your situation is easy. But many of us are in the same boat. And while we cannot change sexism or racism or any other kind of discrimination overnight, there ARE things you can do to not feed the monster.

Seriously, be "difficult" then. I am "difficult" and while a small percentage of people might hate on me, I have an amazing network of supporters and mentors, male and female, junior and senior. I am also off to a great R1 tenure track job soon. You can do it, despite the difficulties but you need support and a good attitude.

All my best,


At 3:39 AM, Blogger JaneB said...

Yuck that's a mess. A familiar mess. We often fall into the trap of being helpful, let it happen once or twice without 'payment', and then it becomes assumed that we'll carry on being nice. After all, isn't that what we caring, nuturing women do?

Definitely, authorship should be discussed up front when looking at a contribution to someone elses work, and it can make you look difficult - but look at it this way, if YOU don't respect your time why should anyone else? I'd rather be seen as difficult than doormat... not that either is exactly an accolade

At 9:27 AM, Blogger butterflywings said...

YES. Well said about the authorship.
You explain very well how insidiously sexism works. Women are just expected to be nice and not ask for much, anything else = difficult, but they wouldn't dream of asking a man to help out without making him an author (or at least damn well saying upfront whether they will or not!)


I didn't dare ask whether I would get named as an author for my MSc project. I doubt I will. Although it was only part of the paper, I did a lot of work and damn well deserve recognition!
They didn't even say thanks, dammit. I e-mailed advisor to say thanks bye etc. at the end - no reply. A few weeks later, a snotty e-mail saying I should ask for a reference far in advance
1. I DID, the job in question was being disorganised, not me
2. I wasn't to know they were on sabbatical for weeks

At 11:39 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 4:17,

That's what I used to do, too. But lately I am questioning whether it's a good thing to be 'distracted' by things I find interesting, but which are not part of my project. In most cases it has been useful and given me ideas if not any tangible rewards. But it is also often hard to judge up front how much time will really be involved.


I didn't realize it was happening until recently. I would certainly hope that it will go away as more people recognize authorship as a form of currency. On the other hand, there are also many issues with the ethics of including people or not including people and how much of the work they should be responsible for understanding or explaining if someone should ask them. Some people think authorship should be reserved only for the main contributors (PIs excepted, of course, whether they did anything or not!).

Anon 7:30,

Glad you liked it. And in a way it's nice to know it's not just me.

Anon 9:11,

Yeah, I've heard this before, usually from men.

I have not experienced the level of reciprocation that one might expect from generosity. And of course I always point them to another resource. But I'm still labeled as being 'difficult', or worse, they assume I'm incompetent and assume that's why I say I can't do it.

It's a lose-lose-lose.


yes! yes! and thanks!

Anon 3:14,

Interesting idea. Just don't care. Don't know why I didn't think of that before.

Oh wait, yeah, I did. And people told me the reason I'm not getting good recommendation letters is because I'm too Difficult.

Thanks anyway though. Glad to hear it's working out for you. I guess there are levels to being Difficult. I must be much more of a PITA than you!


See reply to APP. My default setting is Difficult.


Your comment reminds me of another insidious thing I've noticed- women are always somehow expected to

a) do everything wayyyy ahead of time (while it's fine for our male peers and PIs to do everything last-minute)


b) psychic

aren't we?

How the hell could you have known they were on sabbatical? And yet somehow you're the one who gets backlash?

I have a friend on campus who recently experienced something very similar: getting yelled at for not giving sufficient advanced notice, when it was completely out of her control. WTF is up with that?

At 2:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That certainly sucks.

I am a senior post-doc, and I have never been on a paper where I contributed less than a figure. In fact, roughly 90% of my papers, I am 1st author.

However, I too, have been feeling similar pressures of late. I spend a good deal of my time showing/teaching/reshowing/reteaching/giving ideas to grad students and other post-docs in the lab. I get exactly zero from this. Not even an acknowledgement in departmental seminars. It really is annoying, and it has more to do with the PI who basically has evolved this expectation that I do these things for experience I can say I know how to teach people X,Y and Z. Okay. I dislike it a great deal...partially because I spend more time than I want to doing this, partially because the PI thinks he is a great-mentor, but he is pawning off most of the boring shit... but I can deal with it..when I have my own lab I will try to handle it better. For example, my dissertation lab...there was a senior post-doc who did lots of helping/trouble shooting...he would get on the 1st paper of each person who used technique X (the technique he taught). I thought (and still do think) that was very fair.

At 6:28 PM, Blogger Psych Post Doc said...

I seriously hope that NFP gives you authorship!!

Would you do it for her if she was doing the exact same thing for you?

At 11:01 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I would definitely acknowledge her if she did as much as I have done so far. Actually I think she will acknowledge me, she does strike me as the sort of person who expresses gratitude gracefully and professionally.

The real question comes in how much more she's going to ask me to do.

It's ironic because we're expected to train each other in new techniques for 'free', but it would be a whole lot faster for me to do it for her in exchange for authorship, plus then I would get 'paid.'

But it's worse for her career if we do it that way, because she won't learn the technique if I just do it for her, and then next time around she still won't know how to do it herself.

And I'm not sure she knows any techniques I need to learn. I don't think it can be a fair exchange that way.

In my oyster heart, I'd like to think that in the long run, the more collaborative/educational way that women tend to work or be expected to work (I'll show you how and then you can do it yourself) will benefit us all (women in science AND science as a whole and therefore Society and The World) a lot more than the tit-for-tat way the Publication Gangs work.

I have one of these (male) collaborators, who refuses to teach me his trademark technique. And he never asks me to do experiments for him.

But he gets to do 1 figure for each of my papers where I need this technique, and he gets automatic authorship. It sucks for me because I have to wait for him, and I can't explore using this technique unless I want to reinvent the wheel and teach myself how to do it (plus then I think he would be pissed off at me).

Eventually I think that when I have my own lab, I will figure out how to do this technique on my own.

At 5:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's been my experience that women don't look out for each other like men do for other men. since she's a new female postdoc, just ask her upfront what your contributions merit for a future publication. you know a man would ask.

there's a phenomenon that women tend to do called "pulling up the ladder." not all women do it. the mentality is: if one has actually made it up the ranks, why would she make it easier for another woman to advance?

it is a sick world out there. just saying it's not even fair playing on the same team.

At 10:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is great that you articulate this stuff. It helps others going through the same thing to feel less crazy

This stuff happens all the time, but there is a lot of variation among labs and people who have been luckier and had a better experience tend to doubt accounts like these. Therefore, the more people talk about it the better.

If I were you, I would embrace your difficult and bitchy identity. There are worse things than being disliked, you could be ignored altogether! The trouble is if you only work with people who are decent to you, you might find yourself working alone, and that isn't a great thing either.

At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Advice on being a difficult woman

1) Recognize that you are facing a double-bind: be "nice" and you will be walked on, be "mean" and you will be socially punished

2) the successful path is very narrow, you will occasionally misstep. Forgive yourself, cut yourself some slack. You were dealt an unfair hand, that is not your fault. Do not blame yourself.

3) Make your peace with the unfairness of it all. It is natural to be angry at your sitch because anger is the natural response to injustice. But for your own sake, you've got to accept it and move on. Just think: it could be worse, you could have been born in Iraq!

4) Be willing to be disliked occasionally.

5) Seek out ways to counteract the social costs of sticking up for yourself. I.e., woo the bastards. In particular, look for non work related things that can make them like you. Throw a great party and invite them, bake a cake for someone's birthday. Flaunt your goodness and make it very difficult for them dismiss you as "just a bitch." You do this not because you like them, want to be their friends or care what you think. You do this because you are machiaviallian enough to understand that it will help you.

At 7:11 AM, Anonymous AnonJuly10 said...

Hi-- In my field, from what I can tell, the recommendation letters mainly speak to the candidates' best papers. So while I don't deny that having lots of papers on the CV looks impressive, and will be remarked on positively in terms of "energy", I think what really gets one in the door to R1's is something to the effect of "let me spend my time on his/her three best contributions, and why I'm excited about them".

At 10:38 AM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...


One thought that motivated my post was the consideration that authorship discussions need to be normalized so that nobody looks like a jerk for bringing it up. The more we recognize that authorship should be a part of the discussion among collaborators as the project goes forward, the less any one person sticks out for standing up for her own rights.

At 9:30 PM, Anonymous Jonathan Wren said...

Well, just FYI - those middle author positions don't count for that much in terms of how promotion & tenure committees perceive contribution. We did a study on this a while back ( and on a 5-author paper, the 3rd author is perceived to have contributed to about 8% of what it took to complete the paper (average of supervision, intellectual contribution & work).

Now, of course, when it comes to how a CV *looks* - having a long list of pubs seems impressive. But an extremely low first author to middle author ratio of papers sends a red flag to P&T committees that the scientist doesn't really have a lot of contributions they can call their own. Not all positions are equal and they know it. I wouldn't be surprised if this buddy system is a contributing factor to why middle authors are considered so marginal.

At 3:56 AM, Blogger Dr. MCR said...

This post speaks to som many things that are still issues of not only sexism but collegiality in science and Universities. I have recently blogged about this("Spinning the Plates...", which is a later-career version of the scientist/parenthood/professor tug-of-war wwith the added thrill of academic adminstration. BTW, I am a new blogger, and I wanted to let you know that I really enjoy your blog.

At 4:02 PM, Blogger butterflywings said...

Thanks for the support MsPhD - yeah I felt as if I had done something wrong at the time. EXACTLY - women are often expected to be mind-readers.
And YES we are expected to be perfect and super-organised - now I think of it, my supervisor would be very critical of tiny things I did wrong such as very minor delays.
Well - at least I know I wasn't just being paranoid.
It's true - women have to be twice as good to be considered equal. GRRRRRRR.

At 6:05 AM, Blogger Santanu said...

I'm a guy in my first year in MTech
(CS), and i'm pretty much a novice to the concept of authorships. My friend and I have done some substantial work in our summer internships, and both of us have agreed that it is worth taking out a paper on joint first authorship. My question is, how do i indicate joint first authorship in my paper (its in latex draft form now) when i submit it ? I dont want to cause any misunderstandings between me n my friend just because i made an error in formatting !! Pls help ...Its due for submission this week!!


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