Authorships Research Papers

Stephen Kosslyn first started to consider how author lists come together when he found himself mediating a dispute. A postdoc and a graduate student each wanted to be listed as the first author on a study. “They both had a case,” recalls Kosslyn. “It got heated.”

Disagreements often happen when contributors put in similar amounts of effort on different aspects of a project, says Kosslyn, a psychologist at Stanford University in California. For example, one person might have developed the idea for the project and the other performed most of the data analysis. “The force of the dispute usually revolves around the feeling that whatever they did was more important than what the other person did,” says Kosslyn.

Such disputes are common. “As authorship is our academic currency, it tends to be a hot-button topic,” says Karen Peterson, scientific ombudsman at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. She says that one-fifth of the disputes she adjudicates concern authorship. Similar conflicts are among the most common issues mediated by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), says Virginia Barbour, the organization's chairwoman and chief editor of PLoS Medicine in Cambridge, UK.

Authorship disagreements can be mitigated with careful discussions, explicit lab guidelines and a good understanding of authorship practices in one's field. There is no perfect approach, but deciding on who gets an authorship credit, and how they are ranked, is a crucial part of doing science responsibly.

Precise statistics on authorship disputes are hard to come by, says Mario Biagioli, a science historian at the University of California, Davis, who has studied authorship. Scientists may be reluctant to admit that they have demanded undeserved authorship or otherwise subverted the system, and the US Office of Research Integrity does not track such disagreements because they are not considered scientific misconduct, says Biagioli, who co-edited the book Scientific Authorship: Credit and Intellectual Property in Science (Routledge, 2002). However, in a 2005 survey1 of researchers who had received a grant from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), 10% of respondents admitted to assigning authorship “inappropriately”.

Credit confusion

Questions of who deserves credit for a paper are a fairly recent phenomenon, says Biagioli. Once upon a time, a paper had one author, maybe two. But with modern big science and large collaborations, a study might have hundreds or even thousands of authors — as in the case of the ATLAS experiment2 at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Europe's particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.

And what authorship means varies by scientific discipline. For example, in particle physics, hundreds of researchers may contribute to the development and maintenance of a single piece of equipment, such as an accelerator. At big physics labs such as CERN, everyone who was working at the lab when the discovery was made gets a slot on the author list — even if they haven't seen the paper, says Biagioli. The authors are usually listed alphabetically, regardless of how much they contributed.

In the biological sciences, by contrast, the author list is often strictly ranked. The top spot is at the end of the list, where the principal investigator gets credit for running the lab. The student or postdoc who actually did the work goes first. As for the authors in the middle, it is hard to tell whether they participated a lot or a little, says Biagioli.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has developed authorship guidelines that are used by many journals and institutions. These rules state that to be listed as an author, each researcher must meet three key criteria: they must have been involved in designing the project, collecting data or analysing the results; they must have participated in drafting or revising the manuscript; and they must have approved the final, published paper. Many universities that have their own guidelines base them on the ICMJE's wording, says Biagioli.

Kosslyn has his own definition: the crucial element, he says, is creativity. For example, a researcher could work with study participants in the lab, but just be following a protocol. “Anybody could have run the subjects, so running the subjects is not enough,” says Kosslyn. To earn authorship, the researcher would be intellectually engaged: they might point out a feature of the data that leads the team to reshape the experiment. The paper wouldn't look the same without them.

The author in question

COPE recommends that researchers decide who will be an author and what order they will be listed in before they even conduct experiments, and that the group revisits the author list as a project evolves. A handshake isn't enough to seal the deal — researchers should keep author agreements in writing.

Whenever they occur, authorship discussions need not be confrontational (see 'Aggravation-free authorship'). Mark Groudine, deputy director of the Hutchinson Center, says that the parties in a dispute should sit down and try to talk the matter over. “People get so locked into their positions that they don't make the effort to understand the other person's point of view,” he says, “and therefore they don't understand why it's a dispute.”

If talking doesn't work, Groudine suggests asking the opinion of an unbiased third party. For example, on one project he collaborated with another principal investigator. When it came to writing up the paper, both wanted to be senior author. They invited two trusted colleagues to mediate.

The jury awarded the senior slot to Groudine, but he felt uneasy about it. He suggested that the other investigator be the corresponding author, who communicates with the journal and any scientists who enquire about the work. “I consider corresponding author as equivalent, almost, to senior author,” says Groudine. Co-senior authorship is also an option, he adds.

But sharing credit too broadly can be risky. Sometimes authors are listed more as a courtesy than because they made a key contribution, says Chris Sneden, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin, who will step down from his post as editor of The Astrophysical Journal Letters at the end of this year. Accepting courtesy authorship is a “double-edged sword”, he says. If the paper becomes famous, “every author gets to claim credit”. But if it becomes infamous, everyone gets a share of the blame. Researchers need to be aware of the potential risks of adding their names to manuscripts that they know little about (see 'Ghosts and guests').

Gerald Schatten, a stem-cell researcher at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, learned that lesson when he lent his good name to a high-profile but eventually discredited stem-cell paper by Woo Suk Hwang, then at Seoul National University. Schatten was investigated by his university, which cleared him of misconduct, but chastised him for 'research misbehaviour' because he failed to check the quality of the science3.

The decision to accept courtesy authorship is a matter of preference, says Sneden. “Personally, if I haven't actually contributed something to the specific paper, I just won't have my name on it,” he says. In that case, he politely tells his colleagues that he shouldn't be on the list. “I make sure they understand that it's not a negative reflection on the paper,” he says.

Taken in vain

Sometimes, the recipient of this courtesy may not get the chance to bow out. A researcher who has been added to the author list without their permission might be surprised to see their name when the paper comes out, says Sneden, or even angry if they don't agree with the conclusions. Those who find themselves unexpectedly an author on a paper that they would prefer not to be associated with should contact the editor of the journal, he recommends. The editor will get in touch with the study's corresponding author, and decide whether a corrigendum is necessary to explain that the author in question was not involved with the work.

These kinds of conflicts shouldn't occur. Corresponding authors are expected to have the approval of their co-authors — but some don't realize it. “People, do you read the publication agreement that you sign?” Sneden asks his colleagues. (Often, the answer is no.)

Increasingly, journals are attempting to keep authors in line by asking for details on who did what. In cases of fraud, those descriptions should lay the blame at the right person's door.

Biagioli agrees that delineating each person's contribution should help, but he says that the descriptions are frequently too brief. As an example, he cites the study published this month in Nature by the ENCODE Project Consortium4. It ascribes generic tasks such as “data analysis”, “writing” or “scientific management” to large sets of authors, making it impossible to tell, for example, who analysed which data. When scientists sit down to plan a project — and ideally draft the author list — they should also decide how to describe everyone's contributions, says Biagioli. The relevant details will probably vary by discipline, he adds.

In his own lab, Kosslyn has instituted a scheme to make authorship requirements explicit from the outset. As he listened to his student and postdoc arguing their cases several years ago, he started to develop what eventually became a 1,000-point system. The researchers who come up with the idea get 250 points, split between them according to their contribution; writing the paper is worth the same. A further 500 points are available for designing and running the experiment and analysing the data. Researchers who score at least 100 points make the author list, with each person's point total determining their rank.

Disagreements still occur; in those cases, Kosslyn decides how the points are allocated. When the balance of contributions is unclear, he does his best. However, it rarely comes to tallying points. “Usually it's very obvious what the order's going to be,” he says.

In recent years, no disputes have ever risen to the level of the argument that led to the point system. “That,” says Kosslyn, “was the last heated dispute we had in the lab.”

GETTY

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made disagreements about order in baseball the stuff of comedy legend.

G. TODD/FHCRC

Ombudsman Karen Peterson says that one-fifth of the disputes she handles are about authorship.

Defining the Role of Authors and Contributors

1. Why Authorship Matters

Authorship confers credit and has important academic, social, and financial implications. Authorship also implies responsibility and accountability for published work. The following recommendations are intended to ensure that contributors who have made substantive intellectual contributions to a paper are given credit as authors, but also that contributors credited as authors understand their role in taking responsibility and being accountable for what is published.

Because authorship does not communicate what contributions qualified an individual to be an author, some journals now request and publish information about the contributions of each person named as having participated in a submitted study, at least for original research. Editors are strongly encouraged to develop and implement a contributorship policy. Such policies remove much of the ambiguity surrounding contributions, but leave unresolved the question of the quantity and quality of contribution that qualify an individual for authorship. The ICMJE has thus developed criteria for authorship that can be used by all journals, including those that distinguish authors from other contributors.

2. Who Is an Author?

The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

In addition to being accountable for the parts of the work he or she has done, an author should be able to identify which co-authors are responsible for specific other parts of the work. In addition, authors should have confidence in the integrity of the contributions of their co-authors.

All those designated as authors should meet all four criteria for authorship, and all who meet the four criteria should be identified as authors. Those who do not meet all four criteria should be acknowledged—see Section II.A.3 below. These authorship criteria are intended to reserve the status of authorship for those who deserve credit and can take responsibility for the work. The criteria are not intended for use as a means to disqualify colleagues from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them the opportunity to meet criterion #s 2 or 3. Therefore, all individuals who meet the first criterion should have the opportunity to participate in the review, drafting, and final approval of the manuscript.

The individuals who conduct the work are responsible for identifying who meets these criteria and ideally should do so when planning the work, making modifications as appropriate as the work progresses. It is the collective responsibility of the authors, not the journal to which the work is submitted, to determine that all people named as authors meet all four criteria; it is not the role of journal editors to determine who qualifies or does not qualify for authorship or to arbitrate authorship conflicts. If agreement cannot be reached about who qualifies for authorship, the institution(s) where the work was performed, not the journal editor, should be asked to investigate. If authors request removal or addition of an author after manuscript submission or publication, journal editors should seek an explanation and signed statement of agreement for the requested change from all listed authors and from the author to be removed or added.

The corresponding author is the one individual who takes primary responsibility for communication with the journal during the manuscript submission, peer review, and publication process, and typically ensures that all the journal’s administrative requirements, such as providing details of authorship, ethics committee approval, clinical trial registration documentation, and gathering conflict of interest forms and statements, are properly completed, although these duties may be delegated to one or more coauthors. The corresponding author should be available throughout the submission and peer review process to respond to editorial queries in a timely way, and should be available after publication to respond to critiques of the work and cooperate with any requests from the journal for data or additional information should questions about the paper arise after publication. Although the corresponding author has primary responsibility for correspondence with the journal, the ICMJE recommends that editors send copies of all correspondence to all listed authors.

When a large multi-author group has conducted the work, the group ideally should decide who will be an author before the work is started and confirm who is an author before submitting the manuscript for publication. All members of the group named as authors should meet all four criteria for authorship, including approval of the final manuscript, and they should be able to take public responsibility for the work and should have full confidence in the accuracy and integrity of the work of other group authors. They will also be expected as individuals to complete conflict-of-interest disclosure forms.

Some large multi-author groups designate authorship by a group name, with or without the names of individuals. When submitting a manuscript authored by a group, the corresponding author should specify the group name if one exists, and clearly identify the group members who can take credit and responsibility for the work as authors. The byline of the article identifies who is directly responsible for the manuscript, and MEDLINE lists as authors whichever names appear on the byline. If the byline includes a group name, MEDLINE will list the names of individual group members who are authors or who are collaborators, sometimes called non-author contributors, if there is a note associated with the byline clearly stating that the individual names are elsewhere in the paper and whether those names are authors or collaborators.

3. Non-Author Contributors

Contributors who meet fewer than all 4 of the above criteria for authorship should not be listed as authors, but they should be acknowledged. Examples of activities that alone (without other contributions) do not qualify a contributor for authorship are acquisition of funding; general supervision of a research group or general administrative support; and writing assistance, technical editing, language editing, and proofreading. Those whose contributions do not justify authorship may be acknowledged individually or together as a group under a single heading (e.g. "Clinical Investigators" or "Participating Investigators"), and their contributions should be specified (e.g., "served as scientific advisors," "critically reviewed the study proposal," "collected data," "provided and cared for study patients", "participated in writing or technical editing of the manuscript").

Because acknowledgment may imply endorsement by acknowledged individuals of a study’s data and conclusions, editors are advised to require that the corresponding author obtain written permission to be acknowledged from all acknowledged individuals.


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