The Rise of the Middle Author: Investigating Collaboration and Division of Labor in Biomedical Research using Partial Alphabetical Authorship

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Contemporary biomedical research is performed by increasingly large teams. As a consequence, an increasingly large number of individuals are being listed as authors in the byline of biomedical articles, which complicates the proper attribution of credit and responsibility to individual authors for their work. Typically, more importance is given to the first and last authors of biomedical papers, and the others (the middle authors) are considered to have made smaller contributions. However, we argue that this distinction between first, middle and last authors does not properly reflect the actual division of labor and does not allow a fair allocation of credit among the members of the research teams. In this paper, we use partial alphabetical authorship to divide the authors of all biomedical articles in the Web of Science published over the 1980-2015 period in three groups: primary authors, middle authors, and supervisory authors. We show that alphabetical ordering of middle authors is frequent in biomedical research, and that the prevalence of this practice is positively correlated with the number of authors in the bylines. We also find that, for articles with 7 or more authors, the average proportion of team members in each group is independent of the team size, more than half of the authors being middle authors. This suggests that growth in authors’ lists are not due to an increase in secondary contributions but, rather, in equivalent increases of all types of roles and contributions. Nevertheless, we show that the relative contribution of middle authors to the overall production of knowledge in the biomedical field as increased dramatically over the last 35 years.

This content has been updated on 1 November 2019 at 15 h 30 min.