What’s in an asterisk: the power of Nature

A recent decision by Nature to restrict the number of joint first authors to three and not to have joint senior authors (see *) is another step of this (and other HIF journals) to accumulate power in running science. They already influence decisions about position and grant income through what and who they allow to publish, they also determine the content and the timing of publications through the lengthy review process. It could be said that these effects are indirect and that we contribute to the mechanisms that foster this meddling into our affairs, but their new policy is unilateral, an editorial policy, and can have very direct effects on the careers of young scientists. It seems to me that we should not allow this to happen.

As the requirements for a publication in HIF journals become increasingly unreasonable (there are increasing comments in the web about this), a manuscript often requires a blend of diverse skills and techniques, sometimes from different groups. In these cases, the assessment of the individual contributions of different authors becomes a challenge for the senior authors. Over the years it has become customary to use asterisks to call attention to the fact that “these authors have made equal contributions to the work”. As the complexity of the work and the number of rounds of reviews increase, it is not unusual that the number of equal contributions increases proportionally and it is not uncommon that, particularly in HIF publications, there are three, four or five asterisks. The value of this to the authors, usually postdocs on the verge or in the midst of a job application, is that in their CVs they can place their name as first in the publication reflecting their work. Needless to say that while we change our scale of values, in a paper in Nature this is important. The decision of how many asterisks and the order falls to the PIs in discussion with the team.

It is with surprise that Nature has decided to meddle with a decision on a matter that is not within their power. Who are they to impose upon us how we evaluate the contributions of members of our labs to our work? Why should we allow this? What Nature should do is to publish and not to dictate neither the content nor the authorship of what they publish. This is one step to far in a process that we, as authors who provide the content of their business, should control more closely. We already have allowed the evolution of a deeply flawed peer review process and, through an ill judged greed, have allowed the development of a hierarchy which rewards publication branding over content. If we do not do something and allow this policy on number of asterisks to stand, we shall continue to grant these journals increasing powers that in the long term we shall regret. The content and authorship of a paper is not the matter for the journal and we should not relinquish our responsibilities on this matter and give them more power on issues that are so important to us.

The same applies for senior authors. Again, Nature is not going to allow senior coauthorship and this will harm junior group leaders or faculty members in publications with more established scientists.

This development on the side of Nature is dangerous. How much power are we willing to give to the journals? I do not, in principle, have anything against publishing in them, but what I believe is that it should be US who determine their policies and not THEM who determine ours. They live off our toiling and therefore WE SHOULD TELL THEM how we want the system to be and not the other way around.

I have said before and will repeat it here, all the buzz about Open Access, important as it is, is taking the attention of the issue of peer review and the influence of journals on careers, which is destructive and moral grinding.

* this is Nature’s statement:

Nature requires authors to specify the contribution made by their co-authors in the end notes of the paper (see section 5.5). If authors regard it as essential to indicate that two or more co-authors are equal in status, they may be identified by an asterisk symbol with the caption ‘These authors contributed equally to this work’ immediately under the address list. If more than three co-authors are equal in status, this should be indicated in the author contributions statement. Present addresses appear immediately below the author list (below the footnote rule at the bottom of the first page) and may be identified by a dagger symbol; all other essential author-related explanation is in the acknowledgements.

More on this to follow but any comments will be appreciated.


There have been some comments on twitter concerning my posting on Nature authorship policy (http://amapress.gen.cam.ac.uk/?p=928). Here I want to clarify two things rapidly.

1) The original quotation about authorship is taken from Nature’s website: section 5.2 in www.nature.com/nature/authors/gta/index.html. So, while not referred to I would have thought Nature knows its own policies. A second statement appeared on line which supports my understanding: www.nature.com/news/in-search-of-credit-1.12117: “our policy is to allow no more than three authors in first and last positions on a paper”.

2) The second statement also claims that they will allow three joint senior authors, which is contrary to what I have heard. I await clarification on this matter.

All this having been established, I remain concerned that we allow publishers to determine credits and authorship for our work.