Ethical Authorship

How do we give students information about authorship?

That was the question my division chair asked.  Instantly, dozens of answers sprang to mind, but the flood of information seemed overwhelming to provide a person new to the authorship discussion.

Assigning authorship can be a complicated process. At present, there is no universal guideline on how to determine who should be listed as a first author, nor is there a consensus on who should be included in the authors’ list. At some point, the process needs to be handled in an ethical manner.

The current method of authorship is often criticized. Since the assignment of authorship does not have one standard format, researchers interpret it differently. Of course, this creates issues for published material. At best, authors are credited in a manner than does not tell us exactly what was done. Readers are left in an ambiguous realm without knowledge of who wrote a paper, designed an experiment, processed data, or provided any other service required for publication in a scholarly journal.  At worst, people are included on a paper they didn’t really contribute to, or are left out because their contributions were not deemed worth consideration. This can cause serious problems for people who are either deemed knowledgeable of a topic they actually don’t know much about, or for people who do not receive the “scholastic currency” of having a publication on their vitae.

​Scholarly publishing can do better than this.

​Before we get into how, let’s address what, exactly, is authorship?

Authorship is best defined as meaningful and substantial contribution to intellectual content.

​How do you define “meaningful” or “substantial”? These qualitative statements can be difficult to quantify in a standardized manner, which is one reason why authorship can be a tricky realm to navigate.

​Guidelines and recommendations from journals, departments, publishers, and ethics committees are places to turn to help better define authorship.

Three main sources for guidance on authorship are the place of publication, codes of ethics at researchers’ universities or organizations, and guidelines and definitions provided by other resources.

​Some journals or publishers have guidelines for how to assign authorship of publications. For example, the journal Cell has specific guidelines for authorship. Participants in a project are split into corresponding authors, co-author designations, and contributions. Cell provides an explanation of each role and requires description of co-authors’ specific contributions to a publication.

​Disciplines may also have their own guidelines for assigning authorship. For example, social sciences authors are often listed alphabetically regardless of contribution.

​Codes of ethics at organizations, such as universities, may exist with regard to rules and guidelines about assigning authorship.

​If no standard exists in the journal, publisher, discipline, or organization, the assignment of authors is left up to the contributors to the paper. In this case, there are best practices and recommendations for how to assign authorship in an ethical manner.

  1. Make sure the publisher or affiliated organization do not have instructions to authors available in an unknown location.​
  2. Remain transparent about the assignment of roles and the order of authors in a publication. If possible, list the authors’ specific contributions. Don’t say someone is an author if s/he hasn’t read the manuscript, or leave out a person who was instrumental in conducting the research.
  3. Maintain open communication between co-researchers throughout the research and publication process to make sure authorship designations are assigned as expected. This can help cut down on “surprise” listings in publications and abuses in the publication process.

What are some of the recommended practices created by organizations?

The Committee on Publication Ethics produces documents related to a variety of publication issues, including guidelines on recommended practices. In their 2003 report, How to handle authorship disputes: a guide for new researchers, they recommend these principles to help reduce issues with authorship. Authors should encourage a culture of ethical authorship. This means making authors aware of the view of editors, ensuring the departmental library has materials, such as books, on publication ethics, and inquiring about university or departmental policies on authorship. If such materials do not exist, then authors are encouraged to start developing these resources to establish an ethical authorship culture. Contributors should discuss how authorship will be assigned when planning research. Authorship should be decided before an article is drafted.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors has a clear outline of what constitutes authorship. It is a four-part description. First, an author must have significant involvement in the conception and/or design or a study, and/or they must be involved in the data collection, analysis, and/or interpretation of data required by the study. Second, an author must have involvement in the drafting and revising of the manuscript. Third, authors must all have approval of the final manuscript being sent to publication. Finally, all authors have responsibility for the accuracy and integrity of the published research. Only when all four of these pieces of the authorship equation are fulfilled can someone be called an author.

​The Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information (CASRAI) is an international non-profit that has developed a taxonomic model, CREDiT, for contributors’ roles in a published manuscript. This helps identify the specific contribution each person made. There are fourteen roles in the taxonomy, ranging from conceptualization to visualization, which define the degree of each authors’ contributions.

By utilizing these recommended practices, and taking into account the guidelines set forth by publishers and organizations, you can help assign authorship in an ethical manner.

​Finally, review the recommended practices developed by organizations on the forefront of the authorship issue. These include the Committee on Publication Ethics, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, and the Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information.

I recorded all of this as a presentation, which was sent to the faculty member and distributed to students, including those who are currently working developing a science research journal here at the college.  The presentation is available in these locations:

If you click the gear icon in the lower left corner, you can open the speaker notes.
Recording of the slideshow presentation
Slides from the presentation
As with (almost) all of my work, feel free to use as you like, but please give credit to the author.  🙂

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