Image Credit: Unsplash
Image Credit: Unsplash

Proper acknowledgment of authorship is a cornerstone of academic career advancement and upholding the integrity of the scholarly record. So for researchers and journal editors, it matters — a lot. But knowing who should count as an author in different research scenarios isn’t always obvious, even for those involved in the work.

For example, in STEM disciplines, in particular, research papers with author lists of 50 scholars or more, including some extreme cases of lists in the thousands, have led to concerns about “hyperauthorship,” a term coined by Indiana University information scientist Blaise Cronin. In addition to being questionable at times, such mega-author lists can lead to authorship disputes and complicate the publishing process.

Of course, authorship disputes aren’t limited to 50+ author papers. Nor are long author lists always cause for concern. Indeed, as noted in a recent article from Nature, they can also be a positive sign of large-scale global collaboration in research areas that require extensive data collection and analysis.

For all of the above reasons, it’s imperative for journals to develop clear authorship policies and guidelines for dealing with disputes. In this blog post, we round up answers to FAQs we’ve heard from journal editors working to implement new authorship policies and hone existing ones.

Quick Tip: For more information on how to establish authorship policies as well as other submission guidelines, you can also check out the free “Guide to Managing Authors“ journal editor training course from Scholastica, American Journal Experts, (AJE) and Research Square.

Answers to authorship policy FAQs

Q. What are current best practices for defining authorship, and how should journals communicate criteria to submitting scholars?

A: The first step to establishing an authorship policy for any academic journal is having clear criteria for authorship to guide and reinforce editorial decisions when handling authorship questions or disputes. For better or worse, there isn’t one universal definition of authorship in academia; however, the prevailing standard in scientific publishing comes from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE).

ICMJE’s definition of authorship states that authors must have made significant contributions to study ideation and/or design. Scholars who are strictly providing oversight, regardless of their professional position, should not be listed as authors. In cases where a work is submitted with a “multi-author group name” attribution, journals should still require the names of all individual members of the group who are taking authorship credit and responsibility. And those details should be included in the published article if the paper is accepted.

The ICMJE criteria for authorship are:

  • 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.

ICMJE states that scholars who contributed to a paper but do not meet all of the above authorship criteria should be acknowledged separately. We cover how to establish a contributorship policy for such cases below.

Journals should also specify the role of the “corresponding author” as the person who will be primarily responsible for completing required statements of originality and disclosures and communicating with editors to provide additional information as needed and respond to revision requests. The corresponding author must understand they will need to respond to editorial communication during the submission and publication process as promptly as possible.

You can find additional guidelines for defining authorship in the Committee on Publication Ethics’ (COPE) discussion document, “What constitutes authorship?”

Q. Who has the onus for deciding authorship order, and how should it be determined?

A: In a handful of fields, the norm for authorship order is to list everyone alphabetically. These are the most straightforward cases, albeit controversial, as many have argued that such ordering can adversely affect scholars whose names appear late in the alphabet. However, authorship order is generally decided based on how much each author contributed to the work.

The prevailing standard per COPE, ICMJE, the Council of Science Editors (CSE), and other leading publication ethics-setting bodies is that the onus for deciding who should receive authorship and contributorship as well as authorship order rests with the scholars involved in the work.

As far as how authorship order should be determined, practices can vary by discipline and institution. However, in most cases, first authorship is reserved for the primary contributor to the work, and subsequent authors are listed in order of the significance of their contributions from those most involved to those who provided study oversight. Research Square offers a helpful overview of how scholars should approach authorship decisions with guiding questions to ask, chief among them — “Would you be happy to stand up at an international meeting and give a talk about this research?” If a researcher’s answer to that question is “no,” then they most certainly should not be listed as the first author.

Q. How can journals recognize and credit article contributors who aren’t authors?

A: For any scholarly paper, there is often a long list of people who made that work possible. It’s essential to acknowledge scholars who do not meet all journal criteria for authorship but still put time and effort into the research and development process by listing them as contributors.
Journals should provide a list of contributor roles with clear definitions. CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) is one framework for doing so developed in the last decade that can also be factored into article-level metadata.

CRediT categorizes authorship within 14 roles that reflect the general responsibilities of authors throughout the entire lifecycle of a publication:

  • Conceptualization
  • Methodology
  • Software
  • Validation
  • Formal analysis
  • Investigation
  • Resources
  • Data curation
  • Writing - Original draft
  • Writing - Review and editing
  • Visualization
  • Supervision
  • Project administration
  • Funding acquisition

CRediT is now a standard of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) with growing adoption, including over 40 listed publishers and institutions to date.

Q. What are the main types of unacceptable authorship in academic publishing?

A: In addition to establishing a clear definition of authorship, journals should make explicit that any instances of exaggerated or disregarded authorship are not acceptable.

The main types of unacceptable authorship, as noted in the Council of Science Editors guidelines (paraphrased below), are:

  • Guest authorship: when authorship is granted to a well-known scholar who made no contributions to the study but is listed to improve the chances of publication
  • Gift authorship: when authorship is granted as a favor to a researcher loosely affiliated with a study (e.g., head of a department where it took place)
  • Ghost authorship: when a rightful author is omitted from the author list
  • Anonymous authorship: when an author attempts to publish under a pseudonym (this may be allowed in rare cases where personal attribution could pose a risk to the scholar)
  • Authorship for sale: when a scholar attempts to purchase a spot in an author list from a rightful author

Having clear examples and definitions for unacceptable authorship will make it easier for editors to address any such issues swiftly and sufficiently.

Q. What steps can journal editors take to prevent authorship disputes?

A: No journal editor likes dealing with authorship disputes, which can be complex and sometimes get ugly. As a general rule, the best way to manage potential conflicts is to stop them in their tracks.

All journals should have an authorship statement or statement of scholarship that they list on their website and require authors to acknowledge reading by submitting a signed copy and/or completing an affirmation step during submission. Editors should also make clear to authors that it is their responsibility to resolve any questions or disagreements surrounding authorship before submitting a paper.

Journals can add transparency to author list creation by requiring authors to corroborate their contributions to a work upon submission, particularly for papers with extensive author lists. For example, some journals like The Lancet require authors to provide brief statements about their contributions to designate responsibility and prevent ambiguities.

Journals should also be proactive about verifying proposed changes in author list order. For example, ICMJE recommends requiring signed approval from all authors on a paper for any requests made to add or remove an author from the list.

Q. What should journal editors do in the event of an authorship dispute?

A: To answer this question, it’s imperative that editors first have a shared understanding of the most common types of authorship disputes. Per COPE, those are: “(i) individuals who claim that they deserve to be authors but have been omitted; (ii) individuals who have been included as authors but without their consent; (iii) individuals who agree to be authors but who back away from responsibility if something goes wrong – such as if an issue with the integrity of the paper comes to light; and (iv) confusion over multiple authorship.”

Journals should establish set policies and procedures for editors to follow in the event of authorship disputes. COPE has a helpful framework for recognizing potential cases. As discussed above, the onus for deciding authorship and solving disputes ultimately rests with the authors.

The ICMJE authorship policy also offers standards to keep journals out of the often hairy arena of resolving conflicts. It states — “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. The criteria used to determine the order in which authors are listed on the byline may vary, and are to be decided collectively by the author group and not by editors.”

Journal editors can also point researchers to COPE’s guide for handling authorship disputes as a resource.

It’s worth reiterating here that having clear definitions and examples of authorship and unacceptable authorship to point scholars to will help with mitigating any disputes.

We hope these FAQs are helpful as you work to develop new journal authorship policies or improve existing ones. Are there any additional authorship considerations we didn’t cover? We invite you to share your thoughts and questions with us in the comments below or on Twitter @scholasticahq!

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