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Honesty in authorship. Who's on first?

Authors | Researchers | Research integrity
Honesty in authorship. Who's on first?

Research is a collaborative effort, and that collaboration extends to being honest and open about who gets an author credit. 

Having your name on a published paper helps strengthen your academic record and improves your chances of securing funding for future projects. But when you are preparing a manuscript for submission, it’s important to be honest about the contributions of every possible author on the paper, to make sure that everyone involved gets the credit they deserve. 

This post introduces some of the guidelines and criteria that authors and journals can refer to when deciding who earned a place on the author list. It also touches on some tricky situations, such as equal contributors or very long author lists.

Identifying author contribution

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) has prepared criteria that each author on a paper should meet. Several journals refer to these criteria in their own policies, particularly in the biomedical sciences. 

According to the ICMJE criteria, each author of a paper should have been involved in the design, data collection or analysis of the work, but that alone is not enough. They also state that the authors on a paper should all have been involved in writing or revising the manuscript, signing off on the final draft, and be held accountable for the accuracy and integrity of the work. (You can see the full criteria on their website.)

From a practical point of view, this means that you must not add a colleague’s name to the author list of your paper without their agreement. If part of the work was done by a former group member, for example, they should of course be on the author list, but you also need to get in touch with them and get them involved with the process of writing or editing the manuscript.

Several journals are now asking authors to indicate the role that each author had in the development of the research paper. These roles usually include activities such as designing the experiments, collecting data, writing the manuscript, and so on. CASRAI’s Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT) defines fourteen of these levels of involvement, and any author can take on multiple roles. 

Systems such as the ICJME criteria or the CRediT roles can help you figure out who has earned a place on the author list, but there are a few situations that can make this trickier. What if the paper is part of a very large collaboration, for example?

Managing long author lists

Author lists have been getting longer over the years. Among biomedical publications indexed in MEDLINE/PubMed, the average list of authors on a paper doubled from 3 to 6 since the 1980s. The physical sciences are even more extreme. Here, large collaborative projects such as the study of particle physics have increased some author lists to the thousands. 

Sometimes, large collaborative projects list a consortium as author instead of the long list of all individual members. That keeps the list manageable, but it makes it more difficult for the individual authors to show that they were part of the project. On the other hand, with very long lists of individual authors it becomes less clear what the contribution of each author is. However, that is something that eventually could be overcome if more journals started tracking author-level contributions. 

Who shouldn’t be on the author list?

You might want to credit people who were tangentially involved with the research project, such as a supportive mentor, head of department, or a facility manager. Unless they were an active part of the research process and the manuscript creation, they shouldn’t appear in the author list. 

In 2018, an article in Research Ethics outlined a series of possible reasons why some authors may have been tempted to hand out a gift authorship to someone who hasn’t contributed to the work. Their scenarios include situations where people have included a famous member of their department to increase chances of acceptance, or included a colleague as a favour to them, but also address the possibility of researchers being coerced to add others to the author list of their manuscript.

In many of these cases, the acknowledgements section may be a better place to give credit to people who had a more distant role in the success of the project.

Who’s on first? Determining author order

The order in which authors are listed on a paper often indicates the level of involvement, where the coveted first author spot usually goes to the person who did most of the work. This is also often the only name mentioned in some citation formats (e.g. “Lee et al.”). There could be ten other authors on a paper, but people tend to remember the first one. 

In several fields, the last author spot is almost by default the spot reserved for the group leader in charge of the project, whereas the first author would be an early career researcher in that group. When there are more people involved, they’ll appear as middle authors, usually in decreasing order of their involvement with the project. Not every field uses this same system, so you might also see articles where authors are listed in alphabetical order.

In situations where two people have contributed equally to the work, it’s becoming more common for authors assign a co-first author for their paper. This is often indicated with an asterisk to mark which authors are meant to be considered equal.

However, due to the convention of often referring to papers with longer author lists only by the first author, the second name in the list is still perceived to be an inferior position – even with the asterisk. This became clear in a study earlier this year, which showed that, if the pair of equal contributing first authors were of two different genders, the first-listed author was more likely to be male. A different study from 2018 showed a similar trend. If the order had been entirely random, it would have been exactly 50:50. The fact that there was a detectable bias strongly suggested that the two co-first author spots are not treated equally in practice.

Start early and talk to your co-authors

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has written a guide to help researchers resolve such disputes, and their main advice is to start talking about it early in the process.  They recommend discussing who is going to be on the author list, and in which order, before you start writing the manuscript.

Research is a collaborative effort, and that collaboration extends to being honest and open about who gets an author credit. 

This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.

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