The 9 types of academic authors

Artwork by Mark Palfreyman

Nowadays it’s pretty standard for an academic paper to have a long list of authors – but who are those authors anyway?

Writing an academic paper, especially a scientific paper, is nowadays a supremely collaborative effort – there’s often around a dozen authors, all with differing degrees of involvement, vested interests, and enthusiasm.

It’s not uncommon for someone to end up playing different roles at different times, depending on the paper and the people they’re working with – sometimes you’re the one forcing the pace, sometimes you’re the one saying “Woah, woah, woah, slow down a bit”, and sometimes you’re just…fed up.

How many of these roles do you recognise? And how many have you played?

1. Inquisitor
“I don’t think this sentence is clear enough. What does ‘it’ refer to?”
(+) Makes a paper absolutely watertight.
(-) Places innumerable tiny hurdles in the way of submission; can miss the big picture.
The Inquisitor has an absolutely forensic eye for detail – no typo, no factual error, no implicit allusion, no wooly observation escapes their notice. Relentless in their pursuit of utter unambiguity in the manuscript text, sometimes to the extent of making it almost unreadable. Enjoys debating the tiniest points at length, over and over again, and never gets tired of deconstructing a sentence. Sometimes their enthusiasm for revising the manuscript one sentence at a time results in a loss of coherence. Inquisitors differ from Perfectionists in that their focus is exclusively on the manuscript rather than the data or the story. Will clash repeatedly with Speed Demons.

2. Roadkill
“I’m ok with all the changes. I think we’re nearly ready to submit, right?”
(+) Doesn’t create any barriers to submission.
(-) No longer providing any kind of critical input.
Regardless of how they felt about it at the start, whatever enthusiasm the Roadkill had for the paper is long, long gone. They’ve been pummelled so hard by the writing process, the feedback, the edits, the rejections, that they just want it over with and they’re now agreeing to everything regardless of how they feel about it. They’re exhausted, fed up, burned-out, browbeaten, drowned, disillusioned, and deeply frustrated. Roadkills tend to be people who have a vested interest in the success of a paper, which stops them disconnecting completely, but they’ve lost control over the process and can no longer steer it. Repeated Roadkill experiences usually have a terminal effect on the subject’s optimism and outlook, regardless of career stage.

3. Prophet
“Back in 1978, the Hall lab anticipated just such a process; our results show that the textbook model is in fact wrong, and the Hall lab was right all along.”
(+) Sees profound implications in even the smallest finding.
(-) Sometimes sees things that simply aren’t there.
A classic senior author phenotype, the Prophet always sees what’s beyond the data, never the actual data itself. They’re enthusiastic, supportive, generally in favour of publication, and often scare the daylights out of first authors because of their fondness for speculation. Prone to mind-bending suggestions that provoke awkward silences from everyone else in the discussion. Generally receptive to feedback however, and can have healthy effects on Roadkill types whose enthusiasm is flagging. Their penchant for bold ideas can have a positive effect on the manuscript, so long as they’re not given free rein.

4. Handbrake
“Wait, wait, wait – can we really say that?”
(+) Keeps a manuscript grounded.
(-) Stops a manuscript from flying.
A natural counterweight to the Prophet, the Handbrake is the over-cautious one who wants to keep things focused as tightly as possible on the data and what they do and don’t say. Handbrakes are forever taking sentences out of manuscripts and are always trying to limit if not eliminate speculation. Tend to be fans of very short Discussion sections, and always worrying about blowback from other members of the research community. An ally of the Inquisitor, but tends to be more emotionally attached to the story. The downside is that their rigid interpretations sometimes suck all the life out of the narrative. A common first author phenotype.

5. Speed demon
“Oh c’mon – we’ll do that control if the reviewers ask for it.”
(+) Ensures forward momentum, good for morale.
(-) Capable of publishing shoddy work.
To the Speed Demon, scientific publishing is easy. You do the experiments, you write them up, you send them out. Simple! Speed Demons are beehives of productivity who can readily attract the “rising star” label, but the reckless ones are equally capable of leaving a trail of mistakes that the field (and the lab) has to correct in future publications. Loved by Prophets, as they will not only approve of their bonkers notions but sometimes – worryingly – immediately do experiments that support them. On the plus side, Speed Demons can motivate and inspire those around them and, when coupled to smarts and experimental rigour, are formidable scientists with an intuitive understanding of research realpolitik who deserve every accolade that comes their way.

6. Drudge
“Just let me know if you need any more experiments doing.”
(+) Doesn’t get in the way.
(-) Provides close to zero input to the manuscript itself.
The Drudge’s involvement with the paper begins and ends at the bench. They have little to no conceptual attachment to the story, they don’t get involved with the writing or editing process (apart from Methods sections), and their often uninterested or disengaged attitude can grate, especially with Roadkills. Frequently technical specialists who are essential contributors to the paper’s data and thereby its conclusions, but also guns for hire who never get emotionally involved with a project.

7. Mystery collaborator
“— —— “
(+) Generates the data that supports the big conclusion.
(-) No actual proof of their existence besides a website.
Mystery Collaborators abound on papers but nobody except the senior author ever has any contact with them. Can often be very well-established scientists whose name recognition adds immediate lustre to a paper’s author list. Frequently appear on the paper simply because a postdoc in their group contributed data, however. The postdoc also gets delegated to handle any e-mail correspondence that comes their way, adding to the mystique.

8. Control freak
“We can’t say that. If you insist on putting that in the paper, you can take my name off the author list.”
(+) Sometimes has an important point; stubbornness ensures that it is heard.
(-) Sometimes doesn’t have an important point; stubbornness just slows everything down.
The Control Freak wants everything their way. It’s their story as far as they’re concerned, and that means they have final say on anything – the other authors can debate things and make suggestions, but the decision is always for the Control Freak to make alone. Total inflexibility is their signature trait, no matter how polite and charming they may be about it. Common in first-time first authors at the end of a long and numbing project, and also senior authors (particularly junior faculty). Control Freaks work well with Drudges, who don’t get in their way, but can be tricky collaborators.

9. Perfectionist
“I think we should repeat this with scRNA-seq.”
(+) Never publishes anything less than top-drawer work.
(-) Never publishes anything less than top-drawer work.
The Perfectionist is a great person to have on your paper but they can be difficult if not impossible to work with. They are generally exceptional scientists whose commitment to research purity means they never, ever, settle for anything less than outstanding in terms of quality. They’re methodical, generally insist on extra experiments to make sure of things, and, when senior authors, have a natural ability to gaslight Roadkills. In a worst-case scenario, Perfectionists remain permanently unsatisfied with a paper, resulting in years and years of data being simply discarded in favour of newer and higher-resolution approaches. Perfectionists can work either extremely well or not at all with Speed Demons, as they can negate one another’s shortcomings (when communication is good) or create combustible mixes (when communication is bad). Handbrakes and Inquisitors often evolve into Perfectionists as they achieve career seniority. Early-career Perfectionists can often struggle, as their rate of output is always slow.

Can you think of any more scientific author types? Let us know if so.

If you liked this, have a look at our other entries in this series:
the 9 types of peer reviewer
the 9 types of grant reviewer

– This posting co-authored with Mark Palfreyman.
– As with our previous “9 types” posting, this owes an immense debt to the originator of the “9 types” life sciences concept (and a founding inspiration for TIR itself), namely the Dent cartoons from NIH.

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