“Publish or Perish” is a mantra which will be familiar to many of those working in academia. The pressure to publish your research in order to advance an academic career can be intense. PhD students and early career researchers in particular often find that their career prospects seem to go hand in hand with their publication record. I have heard several colleagues lament, after an unsuccessful interview, that the successful candidate had several first author papers. In the current climate, where funding for research is harder to come by, the competition for research posts is increasing, and having a good publication or two under your belt can be a considerable advantage.
The ultimate aim for a researcher in any field is to publish their research – to have it put out there in the public domain, to share their findings with the rest of the scientific community and to receive well deserved recognition for their research. The format of publication may take a variety of formats, for example journal articles, a book chapter, short news articles, reviews or letters. In Science, my own field, publishing of novel research is most typically in the form of a research paper in a scientific journal. These papers can be the result of many years of work, carried out by a great number of people. Due to an emphasis on collaboration, which is often encouraged by calls for grants involving groups of researchers all over the world to work together on the same project, the resulting research article can be a product of the work of many individuals. Therefore, rather than single or dual authored papers it is common to have several tens of contributing authors on a research article, and this number can grow to hundreds for large consortia, for example the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium which published the sequence of the human genome in 2001.
You might wonder how it is possible for an individual to keep hold of their own contribution to the research amongst such a large number of authors. To some extent, even involvement in a large consortium has a certain merit. On a smaller scale, there are certain unwritten rules when constructing the author list. For example, the first author will typically be a PhD student or early career researcher – the individual who has carried out most of the day to day research in the laboratory. The holy grail for an early career researcher is a first author paper in a high impact journal. It is possible to have a joint first authorship, when two individuals are considered to have contributed equally towards the work. Their supervisor, or Principal Investigator, the person who was responsible for bringing in the funds and managed the research, will usually be the last (and usually the corresponding) author. In between there will be a varying number of individuals who contributed to the research, for example those who carried out the analysis, designed experiments or who were responsible for the collection and extraction of samples. The order in which these individuals appear in the author list depends on the size and significance of the contribution, and as before the more senior researchers tend to be towards the end of the list, and the more junior towards the start. Whether a contribution is worthy of an authorship or simply an acknowledgement at the end of the paper is a bit of a grey area. Some journals now require that the contribution of each author is listed, presumably in an attempt to prevent authors being added to the paper without having made a sizeable contribution to the research.
It does not necessarily follow that a student is guaranteed to get a publication from their PhD research. I do know people who have been lucky enough to get several publications out of their PhD research –the most I know of is eight papers – however this is the exception rather than the rule. In some respects it is very much the luck of the draw – or of the research project. Even if one is lucky enough to make a discovery worth of publication during their PhD, it can take months or even years to actually prepare the publication and submit it, especially when there is a large number of authors involved, who each need to comment on the manuscript and make alterations. Even after submission, and if the paper is considered interesting it is sent out for peer review by at least two researchers in the field. They often have their own comments and alterations which need to be made before the paper is accepted for publication. And those are the lucky ones – less than 10% of all research articles submitted to top journals such as Nature are actually published. Publication is a long a drawn out process which takes a great deal longer than you imagine – luckily, the end result is worth it!