bioinformatics, genomes, biology etc. "I don't mean to sound angry and cynical, but I am, so that's how it comes across"

Celebrate the people who make your science possible

I want to start this post with a heart-felt congratulations to the team from Roslin and their paper in BMC Biology “A gene expression atlas of the domestic pig”, which has some really cool science in it, and which describes a fantastic resource that will be used by scientists throughout the world for years to come.  Well done guys!

What you probably don’t know is that the paper almost won an award in the annual BMC Research Awards – you can see that here, where the paper came runner up in the “Computational and high-throughput studies in genomics and systems biology” category.

I’m particularly proud of Alison Downing, who works in ARK-Genomics, the facility which I am director of – well done Alison!  Alison, like everyone else in the facility, works very hard to enable large scale genetics and genomics projects to deliver; she doesn’t work 9-5, Mon-Fri, she works the hours that the projects demand.  Often here early in the morning, late at night and at the weekend, Alison is the embodiment of a facility scientist – dedicated, skilled, hard working – and completely and utterly under-appreciated by those who use the facility!

Acknowledge and celebrate the people who do the work

As you can see from the Pig Atlas paper, Alison was co-author on the paper.  This is how it should be, in my opinion.  Having processed 100s of samples and microarrays, without her, the paper would not have been possible.

Now, this is a Roslin paper and Alison is a Roslin scientist, but what you may not know is that no-one at Roslin gets a special deal from ARK-Genomics.  They pay the same fees as everyone else.  They wait in the same queue.  There is no price reduction and no queue jumping.

More often than not, when people pay us to process NGS, genotyping or microarray samples, our scientists don’t end up on the resulting paper; quite often, we don’t even get an acknowledgement – and the question has to be why the hell not?

The way I see it is this:  if the work the facility carries out had actually been done in your own lab, would those lab members get on your author list?  If not on the author list, would they get into the acknowledgements?  If the answer is yes, then you should be putting the facility scientist on your publication – full stop.  No argument.

“But I paid for the work!” I hear you say – sure, and you also pay the people in your own lab!  What’s the difference?  Plus, the last time I checked, the author list for a paper is supposed to represent a list of people who did the research and produced the paper – there is no caveat about whether you paid for it or not.

So come on.  Lets celebrate the people who make the genomics revolution possible, the hard working scientists who take your samples and turn them into data, the people who make your science happen – hurray for the facility scientists!


  1. An interesting post. We have run a fly genomics facility for over a decade now and this has always been a tricky area from my perspective. From the outset I decided we would only accept co-authorship if we needed to do anything beyond our standard pipeline, either in terms of some tricky molecular biology methods or non-standard data processing/analysis. If we had asked for co-authorship on everything we contributed array data for I guess our CVs would be much much longer. However, I have always felt that I should only be an author on papers where I have some intellectual input. The case of Alison you highlight, suggests that perhaps I have the balance wrong and that the hands on sample processing and data collection should indeed be acknowledged by authorship. You have now made me ponder!

  2. A lot of the scientific community still need to learn how to do collaborative science!
    The NIH Document: Collaboration and Team Science: A Field Guide at http://goo.gl/o1K0C
    is a good place to begin. It has a section relevant to this
    How to Share Recognition and Credit
    ƒ Build and maintain trust among team members (see Fostering Trust on page
    ƒ Unambiguously assign or negotiate roles and responsibilities for the various
    team members—this is especially important for team leaders.
    ƒ Establish as early as possible a process and criteria for determining how
    authorship and other forms of credit will be decided. Ideally, this will be laid
    out in a collaborative agreement prior to starting the project (see Creating the
    Foundation for Trust on page 24).
    ƒ Create an approachable means by which team members can raise concerns
    about how credit is being or will be determined as soon as potential problems
    ƒ Agree early on in your scientific relationship who will be responsible for
    answering questions and responding to outside inquiries about various
    scientific aspects of the project.
    ƒ In public presentations, identify team members and explicitly acknowledge
    their contributions to the research endeavor.

  3. What’s you take on authorship/acknowledgements for contract sequencing with private companies? Or BGI? Often in these cases it would be virtually impossible to identify who in the service facility did the work. Or should claims for authorship only apply to academic service facilities?

    For what it’s worth, I think Steve’s current model is the correct one to follow, acknowledgements should be minimally required and a part of the contract, authorship should be for contributions above and beyond the standard service agreement for experimental work.

    And don’t get me started on how contributions for bioinformatics or analysis should be handled…

  4. Bravo Mick, couldn’t have said it better myself. I have a very similar post to this in draft 🙂

    I never understand the paid for work/authorship false dichotomy – as you rightly point out, postdocs are paid in an identical fashion (albeit sometimes less directly) & you wouldn’t dream of not putting your postdoc on the paper they worked towards…

  5. You like your contentious issues, don’t you? 😉

    First off, congratulations to the group involved on the paper, which looks great.

    Developing collaborative, rather than service, arrangements is possibly the best route to this kind of acknowledgement, and it probably comes down to how the work is perceived on both sides. I think that the general perception is that, if a facility offers a paid-for service to external organisations, it is in the same bucket as MWG or Sigma such that the contract (implicit or otherwise) means you hand over your money, and you get back what you pay for. Essentially, unless specified otherwise the exchange is monetary, rather than academic credit, for materials and/or data. I suppose that, under this arrangement, the assumption is that hard-working staff in those facilities are rewarded appropriately by the facility. If it was in each contract of service with the facility that it had to be acknowledged and the staff involved included as co-authors in the resulting publication(s), then I would expect that you would either have to be by far the best facility available, or you’d end up having to offer a lower price than competitors who did not enforce this clause.

    Different PIs have different levels of moral tolerance for this, to be sure. Speaking personally, in the past I’ve been left off papers for which I provided similar input (even though I wasn’t working in a facility role), and on ‘my’ papers I’ve included as co-authors individuals whose contributions were technically similar to the role you describe for Alison. I’ve always considered the specific contributions of the individuals involved for that piece of work and, while there’s no hard and fast set of criteria for authorship, I think that the kinds of processes that journals such as PLoS and PeerJ make you go through to list contributions make it easy to get close to the correct decision on the author list, most of the time. And, ultimately, if you consider that you ‘bought the data’ the same way you bought your primers and plates, you’ll credit in the same way.

  6. Apologies for the second post so soon after the first but, given that for large-scale review exercises that may occur periodically >cough<, publications with a large author list are possibly more likely to have individual contributions scrutinised, there may be an additional pressure not to recognise these kinds of contributions with co-authorship.

  7. Interesting point. I crossed with a “similar” situation a few days ago. With a few people from different labs we are submitting a new article. I noticed people from another group inserted a person who did wet-lab work only. I was not against it (I agree with your point) and asked my boss to insert people who worked on our wet-lab for the same article. He answered me that he has a certain policy on the authors that aligns with the demands of international journals to include people only if there is an active contribution and not merely technical.
    If there is a policy we should stick to it, e.g. first author is the one with highest contribute. Though, I have nothing against changing the current policy and include technical contributions as well.
    PS In the pig article, under Authors contributions, I noticed that Alison also designed the array and that is not merely technical work!

  8. Well, how do you define “intellectual input”? Seems a bit nebulous to me 🙂

    Obviously things need to be decided on a case by case basis, but it seems completely bizarre to me that someone could spend weeks or even months working on a project, using technical skills which are not common, and yet not be a co-author on the paper as their work is somehow seen to be inferior in some way?

    I also keep coming back to this: if the facility person was in the PI’s lab, I think they’d get on the paper.

  9. Well I have seen a few papers with GATC employees as co-authors, and as for BGI, well they have collaborative research papers coming out of their ears – just look at any copy of Nature Genetics!

    I disagree that it would be impossible to discover who did the work; and as I said above in response to Steve, it has to be done on a case-by-case basis. If a person sticks two DNA samples into their automated library prep robot and sends it down the pipeline, you can see that this may not be worthy; but if that same person slaves over several thousand samples for 3 months, using technical skills which are not common, then I think that’s a different story.

    I would like someone to define “intellectual input” for me 🙂

  10. This is what I keep coming back to – if the work was done in the PI’s lab, the person who did the work would be credited appropriately 🙂

  11. As I said above in response to other comments, decisions should be made on a case by case basis.

    I take your point about service vs collaboration, and we operate both models in ARK-Genomics – even though, as an academic facility, our costs are roughly half of a commercial supplier, and that is because we are set up to work collaboratively.

    Ordering primers from sigma is, I think, very different to the processing of 100s of samples over a period of many weeks and months. So one has to make a decision. And the decision point I propose is this:

    “Had that work been carried out in my own lab, would that person be credited in some way (either as author or in the acknowledgements)?”

    If the answer is yes, then the facility person should get the same credit.

  12. Totally agree, fantastic post, the issue here is that I feel some people unjustly undervalue those who work for a service as somehow undeserving of authorship. Also equally I think many experimentalists undervalue the input of Bioinformaticians and assume we just “press a button”. As practitioners we need to carefully re-educate them and be insistent. Also agree with argument re postdocs being both paid and authors negates arguments against authorship for service workers.

  13. I posted this over in the ABRF LinkedIn page where I knew I could get us staff members of cores grousing about the topic. The more we talk about it the better.


    My final interview of a potential core staff member usually includes something like, “if you expect credit and authorship you’re in the wrong place. Glom onto a project and put some nights and weekends in and I will strongly encourage you and the PI about getting authorship but if I could quote my favorite line in Prince’s Bride, “Get used to disappointment.”

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