Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Manage the authorship of your journal publications

Libraries are full of journals - but how is journal authorship defined?
One of my duties involves being a point of contact and support for PhD students who may have a problem that they cannot discuss with their supervisor. The most common issue that I'm approached about is journal authorship, and clarification on the conventions and guidance associated with who should be an author, and why. This post provides some guidance and resources on this topic.

Most of the time, the question of authorship (whose names should appear on the manuscript) is relatively easy to decide, and it is typical that a PhD researcher’s name is first, followed by their supervisor(s). The important point is that you need to discuss and agree the issue of authorship with your supervisors (and any other potential co-authors) well in advance of producing a manuscript. Deciding on authorship can sometimes be awkward and you (and your colleagues) need to be aware of the criteria by which authorship is decided. There are differences among disciplines that can complicate things further, especially if you are involved in multi-author publications that are also multi-disciplinary (see also my related post 'Positions in journal author lists- do they matter?' - this highlights some of the inter-disciplinary differences).

Getting authorship decisions wrong or having colleagues who disagree can become controversial; when this occurs, disputes about authorship can be extremely divisive. Undoubtedly, prevention is better than cure.

Problems with interpreting and applying authorship criteria are surprisingly common. In a questionnaire returned by 809 corresponding authors of biomedical journal articles, 19% of articles had evidence of honorary authors (named authors who did not meet authorship criteria), 11% had evidence of ghost authors (individuals not named as authors but who had contributed substantially to the work), and 2% had evidence of both (Flanagin et al. 1998 - free download). Therefore, about one in four of the articles demonstrated misapplication of authorship criteria and inappropriate assignment of authorship, which is ‘incompatible with the principles, duties, and ethical responsibilities involved in scientific publication’ (Flanagin et al. 1998).
So, what set of criteria should be used to determine entitlement to authorship? Unfortunately, there is no universally agreed definition of authorship and, frequently, the absence of a common understanding about the criteria for authorship is the root cause of disputes.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) provides a more detailed account of authorship criteria that are adopted by biomedical journals, and indicates some of the issues that surround entitlement to authorship. The ICMJE has recommended the following criteria for authorship
  • Authorship credit should be based on meeting ALL 3 of the following conditions:
    • 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;
    • 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and
    • 3) final approval of the version to be published. 
  • When a large, multicenter group has conducted the work, the group should identify the individuals who accept direct responsibility for the manuscript (3). These individuals should fully meet the criteria for authorship/contributorship defined above, and editors will ask these individuals to complete journal-specific author and conflict-of-interest disclosure forms. When submitting a manuscript authored by a group, the corresponding author should clearly indicate the preferred citation and identify all individual authors as well as the group name. Journals generally list other members of the group in the Acknowledgments. The NLM indexes the group name and the names of individuals the group has identified as being directly responsible for the manuscript; it also lists the names of collaborators if they are listed in Acknowledgments.
  • Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group alone does not constitute authorship.
  • All persons designated as authors should qualify for authorship, and all those who qualify should be listed.
  • Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content.
Fundamentally, authorship is about the fair allocation of credit to those who deserve it. Although helpful, these clarifications of journal authorship are by no means definitive - e.g. how substantial is a "substantial contribution to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data"? How much intellectual content is required before it reaches a level that is "important"?

Nevertheless, such guidance is useful to assist your efforts in deciding who should be a co-author and who should not.

Update: See a dedicated post on journal authorship by Retraction Watch (a favourite blog of mine), with a number of examples of serious disputes about authorship. There is also a link to a popular article on authorship authors of Retraction Watch in Lab Matters. They finish the article by cautioning that:
At the very least, we’d suggest heeding COPE’s advice to “start discussing authorship when you plan your research” and “decide authorship before you start each article”.

PhD Skill:  Understand the criteria for journal authorship as part of your training on research integrity. Manage the authorship of your articles by discussing the contributions of different contributors and their authorship at an early stage of a project and/or publication.

Useful resources
National Academy of Sciences. (1995) On Being a Scientist: responsible conduct in research.This is an excellent resource that includes a thoughtful discussion and case studies on authorship.
Elsevier provides a very useful 'Authorship Fact Sheet' that is well worth reading.
See also my related post 'Positions in journal author lists- do they matter?'
For some comic relief, see this article on different author caricatures.
The ethics of authorship: does it take a village to write a paper?’ Online article in Science Careers by Glenn McGee.  
A number of other useful publications and resources are available from Elsevier's 'Resources' page in their 'Ethics in Research & Publication' program.

Update: Rolf Zwaan. The gains and pains of joint authorship. (Blog post)

For an excellent insight into a range of case studies on research ethics, publishing and authorship, see Retraction Watch. If you have not seen this before, prepare to be grimly amazed...

photo credit: mollyali via photopin cc

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