Sociology of a functional genomics pipeline

Given the requirement for a multiinvestigator, multi-institutional effort, several pragmatic decisions and realities must be confronted. We describe these in the context of academic collaborations but analogies to the commercial world are obvious. The first question in academic collaborations around the functional genomics pipeline often is: Who will get the credit for the work and for the discoveries that ensue from a particular functional genomics investigation? More concretely, who will get first and senior authorships in the publications that report on the discoveries obtained from this functional genomics discovery pipeline? Will it be the surgeons who obtained the tissue, the bioinformaticians who performed the cluster analysis, the biologist who runs the microarray facility, or the clinician who obtained the phenotypic characterization of the patient from whom the tissue was obtained?

Resolving this issue is nontrivial because of some fundamental human and cultural considerations of the various types of investigators. Within each discipline, an investigator will tend to see those outside his or her discipline as performing more of a utility function rather than making a significant intellectual and creative contribution to the research process. For example, a molecular biologist might view the bioinformatician as providing cookbook analytic algorithms to winnow out the relevant findings from a biological system that they have spent time, energy, and creativity in developing. Conversely, the bioinformatician might view the biologist as a laborer plodding along in the murky swamps of biological experimentation on which the bioinformatician can then shed light by virtue of his or her insights into the general principles of automated inference, clustering, and classification.

For those of us who have labored on both sides of this cultural divide, it is quite clear that there are plodders and creative geniuses in both fields. Successful collaborations in this arena require thoughtful recognition of relevant contributions prior to initiating a long-term collaboration around this strategy. In our own collaborations, we have adopted the following heuristics: If the bioinformatics techniques used are not novel and the interpretation is rote, then the biologists and clinicians usually assume first and senior authorships. If the experimental design is innovative and informed by the nature of the bioinformatics analyses, and the computational techniques have to be developed or customized, then the bioinformaticians usually take first and senior authorships. Often, the major contributions are mixed, as when the bioinformatics analyses are novel and the biological validation steps are creative and arduous, in which case the authorships are split accordingly. In the end, however trite as it sounds, it is true that nothing substitutes for the collegiality and good will that arise from mutual respect for different skills and contributions.

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