Give credit where it is due

Thoughts on the ‘competition’
between senior and young investigators

What about me?

Controversies for credit are numerous for the Nobel Prizes and other high-profile awards.
For example, one of the most controversial Nobel Prizes was the 1923 prize for physiology or medicine for the discovery of insulin, awarded to Canadians Frederick Banting and John Macloed. While Banting clearly deserved the prize, Macleod's contribution was controversial.
Banting complained that Macleod‘s contribution was providing space at the University of Toronto and that Macleod was on vacation when the discovery was made.
But Macleod also loaned Charles Best, a lab assistant, and 10 dogs for experimentation. He also reviewed some early and rather unsuccessful experiments, provided advice and suggested more experiments. He also later provided better lab equipment, more dogs and better lab space. He also began paying Banting.
Subsequent experiments were a success. Around the same time, other scientists contributed significantly to the project with insulin purification. The Nobel committee considered that Macleod's grant to finance the project was a major factor for awarding him half of the prize.
Click here to read about more Nobel controversies.

Nowadays, science rarely is performed by a single person or a few individuals. Modern science frequently is done by multiple collaborating groups or consortia. This sometimes creates confusion as to who did what and how credit should be given when authors are considered for promotions, grants, patents and awards, including the highest ones, such as Nobel Prizes. Shared first or last authorship is a new invention meant to accommodate these new realities.
The position of young investigators (usually postdocs, graduate students or visiting fellows) on who should receive more credit is straightforward and might go something like this:

  • • “If I did the critical experiments, made the discovery and showed its value, I should be credited.”
  • • “Without my hard work, endless nights in the lab, countless lost weekends (I have not seen a movie for three years), and not spending much time with my family (when I leave or go home my kids are asleep), this discovery would have not been made. Not to mention that I do not see my supervisor more than once every six months, and I take full initiative in designing and executing more and more experiments.”
  • • “I wrote the first draft of the paper, I prepared all the figures, I presented the data at international meetings, and I won poster and oral presentation awards in numerous conferences.”
  • • “Since I was the first author in the Nature paper, everybody knows that I was the major player in the discovery. How could I have been neglected by the Nobel committee?” (For example, Dominique Stéhelin wrote an open letter to the Nobel committee of physiology and medicine expressing displeasure that the 1989 award went to Michael J. Bishop and Harold E. Varmus but not to him.)

The lab director’s view may be slightly different. Postdocs and graduate students working in the lab may not immediately recognize that a line of experimentation likely was ongoing for many years and that their projects have been built by tens, if not hundreds, of previously serving associates.
Modern science requires appropriate space, sophisticated instrumentation (sometimes costing millions of dollars) and expert technicians to operate them, at the cost of the principal investigator. The PI needs to spend considerable time to identify financial resources to keep the lab going. Moving fast with the research project requires buying expensive reagents, participating in conferences, bringing in other scientists for discussions and consultations, and securing clinical material, including human tissues and fluids, as well maintaining animals, sometimes counted in the hundreds.
Students sometimes forget that even a rare meeting with the supervisor can generate ideas about how to perform experiments better or smarter. In general, bench researchers sometimes underestimate the collective contributions of the principal investigator.
Should financial and other background support be enough to supersede ingenuity and technical competence in credit allocation? There is no simple answer to this, but in order for a discovery to reach fruition, a number of elements need to come together, and ingenuity alone likely will not make it. There are countless examples of collaborations between senior and young investigators that led to great success.
A superhorse may not win the Kentucky Derby without a skilled jockey, and a fast car may not win the Indianapolis 500 without a top-notch driver. A team of highly talented basketball players will likely not win an NBA title unless they have excellent coaching staff.
An interesting observation (that I and others have made) is that most young scientists tend to overrate their contributions in comparison to their mentors, but when they become established investigators themselves they change their minds. It seems appropriate to conclude that in science, best results can be achieved by a combination of the creative mind and energy of the youth and the resources and wise advice of his or her mature mentor.

Eleftherios DiamandisEleftherios P. Diamandis (ediamandis@ is a professor and head of the clinical biochemistry division at the University of Toronto and holds an endowed chair in prostate cancer biomarkers at Mount Sinai Hospital and University Health Network.