In the world of ‘publish or perish’, it is not surprising that authorship disputes are fairly common. For a researcher, career advancement often depends on credit, and at times it can seem like this can only be achieved through the publication record. No wonder then, that every scientist wants to receive due credit for the work that they have done, in the form of being a named author on a published paper. Indeed, research has shown that in biomedicine, journals with higher impact factors publish papers with more named authors, likely because the prospect of receiving credit for an impactful piece of work is too tantalising for those who have been involved in the research, no matter how small their contribution. But scenarios like these bring about questions about authorship: who qualifies as an author? Do you include the head of your lab in the author list? Does your lab technician qualify for authorship? Essentially, how do you make sure that everyone receives the appropriate amount of credit, while ensuring that you don’t stray into the realms of unethical behaviour? We’ve provided some guidance below.
How to prevent authorship disputes
Firstly, before even undertaking your research, you should be considering who will be listed as an author in any resulting papers. Throughout your investigation, make sure to talk about authorship with your colleagues (in a designated meeting, ideally face-to-face) and keep a note of any decisions made. These discussions should also extend to author order: for example, who will be listed as the first and last authors, or might you even wish to have two first authors with a denotation indicating that their contributions were equal? Peoples’ roles might change during your investigation, but make sure that everyone is aware about how this might affect eventual authorship, meaning that when you come to write your paper, everyone’s expectations about authorship are met.
Secondly, make sure that you follow the guidelines. Your university may have specific guidelines or policies about authorship (if not, you could always suggest that some be put in place), and journals often have strict criteria that must be met by each author. These criteria can vary slightly between different journals and disciplines, so be sure to check this during submission to your selected journal. For example, authors submitting to a Royal Society journal must meet the following criteria based on the ICMJE guidelines:
1) substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;
2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content;
3) final approval of the version to be published; and
4) 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.
Any non-author collaborators who do not meet these criteria (such as those who provided writing assistance or helped with sample collection) must be listed in the acknowledgments section. For further help with how to handle authorship disputes, you might wish to visit these guidelines from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).
How to allocate author contributions
Typically, authors will be asked to include an Author Contributions statement in their article when submitting to a journal, which provides details of each author’s contribution to the research. To make this process easier, we ask authors submitting to the Royal Society journals to allocate roles to authors from the CRediT taxonomy. This taxonomy consists of 14 roles that represent the different contributions authors make to journal articles, and is used to create the Author Contributions statement for each published article. In addition to making the designation of authorship more granular and transparent, we hope that the CRediT system also helps to bring clarity to any author disputes.
When deciding on authorship and other contributors, authors should also be careful to consider equity, diversity, and inclusion. For example, if remote fieldwork is carried out with the help of scientists on the ground or other locals (e.g., perhaps in the Arctic circle where local knowledge is essential), these individuals should be appropriately credited, particularly if their contributions amount to full authorship.
Lastly, make sure to be aware of the specific culture within your research area when deciding on authorship. For example, it is typical in particle physics to name everyone who worked on a specific piece of equipment as an author, however this is very different to the culture in pure mathematics, for example, where single-authored articles are much more common. At the Royal Society, we do allow whole author groups to be included in the author list, provided this adheres to the research culture underpinning the paper in question.
How to avoid authorship misconduct
Fraudulent authorship and misrepresentation are generally considered to be misconduct. With this in mind, it is important to be aware of what fraudulent authorship looks like and how it can be avoided. In broad terms, the following scenarios are considered to fall under the umbrella of fraudulent authorship:
Ghost authorship: when someone who actively participated in the research, and who meets the authorship criteria, is not included in the author list.
Guest authorship: when researchers (typically those who are senior) are included in the author list because of their respect or influence, in the hope that this will increase the likelihood of publication and/or impact once the paper has been published.
Gift authorship: when an individual who did not contribute to the manuscript is listed as an author, perhaps to reward a collaborator, return a favour, or for some other personal or financial gain.
On our journals, we ask our reviewers to look for any signs of wrongdoing with regards to authorship during the peer review process, thus it is important to make sure that all of your co-authors and non-author collaborators are appropriately represented in your manuscript.
But what do you do if your co-author employs one of the unethical behaviours listed above? After all, it can be difficult as an Early Career Researcher to act as a whistle-blower when this has the potential to harm your career. Instead, this COPE report recommends bringing it to your co-authors’ attention that fraudulent authorship is considered to be scientific misconduct by most journal editors, and that if discovered, your paper will likely be rejected.
We hope that this will be useful for when you come to submit your next manuscript! For more Early Career Researcher tips (such as how to respond to a decision letter, to tips on how to excel at reviewing), do visit our blog. You can also find more useful information at our comprehensive resource hub for early career researchers.