When I told a friend I would be interning this summer, he was surprised.
“Why are you doing an internship?” he asked.
“The idea,” I responded, “is to get introduced to a new environment, so I return to grad school with a broader perspective.”
“Sounds like Borat.”
Like a foreign correspondent reporting to his home country, I gave an informal talk to the Stochastic Systems Group about my summer project. The resulting feedback helped me improve my results this summer. However, once the problem was described, there were a lot of similarities with problems familiar to the group. It was hardly Borat.
That said, there are practices at the Broad outside of my work that I would be surprised to see in my own research community. Perhaps the most surprising thing I have discovered is that people are willing to share their ongoing research with people at the Broad. Weekly seminars feature researchers from outside the Broad discussing their as yet unpublished work. Broadies see data that has yet to be made public. I was particularly surprised by this since there is some controversy that Watson and Crick’s paper about the structure of DNA used unpublished data from Rosalind Franklin.
There is a catch. Attendees of the seminar must agree not to work on anything they pick up during the course of the presentation. This understanding and the honor system are what make people comfortable enough to discuss work they might otherwise keep private.
The presentations may also be a way to start collaborations. In a field driven by data, if someone provides the data for a figure on a paper, that person frequently becomes an author, even if the idea of the paper came from others. Thus, advertising results before they are published might allow other researchers to avoiding running the same experiments.
A consequence of this practice is that one rarely finds single authored papers and often finds papers with four or more authors. How does one delineate the contributions of each author? Author ordering may only give a coarse indication of an individual’s contribution. An existing solution in some journals is to include an author contributions section. This section typically follows the acknowledgments and may read some like the following:
S.B.C. conceived and designed the experiments. B.S. conducted the experiments. S.B.C. and B.S. performed the analysis. S.B.C. and B.S. wrote the manuscript.
What happens if the work is primarily by two authors? The practice described to me for these instances is called co-first authorship. To do this, one simply places an asterisk next to each author’s name with a footnote that reads: “These authors contributed equally to the work.”
While some biologists I spoke to joked about some of these practices (one described how an author contributions section might read if each individual’s contribution were described honestly), almost all of them were comfortable with the idea that providing data is a legitimate way to become an author on a paper. The same might not be true for my community, but I wonder if any of these practices would transfer well.