Postdocs often struggle with their publication list. They become the famous “second author”. However, if you strive for a successful academic career, you may have to negotiate better with your supervisor to get first and last authorships to build your career.
The postdoc authorship dilemma
Postdocs have different roles in different countries. In some countries (e.g., the US) they are often “lab rats” who do the major part of the work in the lab. In other countries (e.g., in Europe), they may have a middle-management position. They are in a “sandwich” between the professor on the one hand and the technicians, bachelor, master, and PhD students on the other. Depending on their position in the lab, they support several students, and as a result, they earn a valuable co-authorship – often the second place in the author’s list. However, this creates the classical postdoc dilemma – they support everybody; they do not work on their first author projects and end up
with a long list of co-authorship papers. What is the problem? On the one hand, this shows some kind of scientific productivity; on the other hand, it may be interpreted as limited scientific independence. Read more here: Scientific independence – how to develop and demonstrate it? All the following statements are probably true if you want to pursue a career in academia. In the industry sector, your publication list is less relevant than technical and people skills. Read more here: What is the best publishing strategy in science?
Should I have more first authorships?
The answer is a resounding “YES!”. To develop scientific independence, you need first authorships. If your publication list is full of co-authorships but no first authorships, you will be considered as a diligent co-worker but not as an independent scientist who gets his/her projects done. In later stages of your career (late phase postdoc, tenure tracker, professor) the last or senior authorships become more and more critical.
Should I have more last authorships
Again, the answer is a resounding “YES!” – provided you want to pursue a career in academia (= become a professor). For postdocs, occasional last (= senior) authorships are even more important to show your scientific independence. These demonstrate that you develop and handle your own projects – independent of your supervisor – even if he/she is part of the author’s list or equally contributing last-before-last author. For both, first and last authorships, the key advice is to focus on quality (= higher impact factors) and not on quantity (= high numbers of papers). Read more here: 10 simple strategies to increase the impact factor of your publication and What is the best publishing strategy in science? However, in high-performance labs, the rules may be different. When you leave the lab with one or two Nature or Science papers (or equivalent) people will forgive you not to have senior authorships. Read more here: Do I need Nature or Science papers for a successful career in science?
Should I have more equally contributing last-before-last authorships
This is a tricky question. When you are second to last, and your supervisor is last, it will be easily considered the work of your supervisor. If it is the other way round (supervisor second-to-last and you are last, both equally contributing), it will be interpreted in your favor. When the other equally contributing last author is from another lab, it will also be interpreted in your favor.
Don’t co-authorships count at all?
Co-authorships are essential to “fill your publication list” and to avoid gaps. If you have one or two years without publication, it may be used against you as a sign of limited scientific productivity. Thus, co-authorships fill these gaps but first and last authorships should be your priority. Read more here: Should I aim for multiple co-authorships to extend my publication? and Should I aim for co-authorships on high impact papers?
How about reviews?
The same is true for reviews. A well-published review fills your publication list and helps you to avoid gaps. You look more prolific. A well-published review also helps to position yourself as an expert and to make your work visible to a broader audience. Read more here: Should I aim for multiple co-authorships to extend my publication?
How about the “corresponding author”?
Again a tricky question. I have heard many different views on this subject, and I have seen many different practices. Briefly, if you have to choose between a prominent authorship position (first or last) and the corresponding author position, the former is more important than the latter. However, I have been in situations where I became one of several equally contributing authors and as a “consolation gift”, I got offered the corresponding author. The value of the corresponding authorship is heavily debated, and I have no conclusive answer how much weight it has for your career. However, in all the committees, in which I participated, the corresponding authorship never played a role.
How to negotiate better with your supervisor?
Especially when you want to pursue an academic career, your supervisor should be empathic – but there is no guarantee. You may negotiate to become the senior author and your supervisor equally contributing last-before-last author. A strong arguments may be a massive engagement of yours in a specific project. Many supervisors are open for the ambitions of their postdocs and want to help. In my lab, I have established the rule to share the last authorship with a postdoc who intensively supervises a PhD student and contributes a lot to the study (own ideas, driving the project, a lot of lab work etc.). As a professor, I am still obliged to publish first or last author papers. Luckily, grant committees often accept that senior scientists give the last authorship to their staff members and
become equally contributing last-before-last. Thus, in later stages of your career, it may be less critical to be in the last position. However, also this point is debated among my colleagues.
In conclusion, you should avoid the postdoc publication dilemma (= a long list of only co-authorships) at all costs – provided you want to pursue a career in academia. If not, first authorships have the highest priority, co-authorships are nice, and senior authorships are less relevant.
Just a caveat: These are my personal opinions developed in many hours spend on selection committees for grants and positions. Please take every statement with a grain of salt and discuss with experienced colleagues in your field. The rules may be different in other specialties.