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In scientific research, papers with lengthy author lists of 50 scholars or more have become somewhat commonplace, and even extreme cases of author lists in the thousands are no longer totally out of the ordinary. One prime example is a physics paper from two teams working on detectors at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN that set a new record for the largest author list with over 5,000 authors. Papers with authors in the hundreds or thousands have triggered concerns among some in academia about a rise in “hyperauthorship,” a term coined by Indiana University information scientist Blaise Cronin. In addition to being questionable at times, long author lists can also increase the likelihood of authorship disputes, which can complicate the publication process.

It’s imperative for academic journals to develop authorship policies so that they have a process for assessing lengthy author lists as well as guidelines for dealing with authorship disputes. It’s important to note that such disputes can happen for papers with any number of authors, not just those with extensive author lists. Below we overview the main points journals should cover in their authorship policies and why.

Define authorship

The first step in establishing an authorship policy for any journal is having a steadfast definition for authorship. A formal definition with clear criteria for authorship is necessary to back up journal decisions in acknowledging authorship and handling disputes.

There is not a universal definition of authorship in academic publishing, though some organizations like the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), have developed standardized definitions of authorship for their journals. A good definition of authorship should encompass an overall statement of what constitutes an author as well as a list of criteria required to meet that standard. ICMJE’s overall definition of authorship states that authors must have made significant contributions to the ideation and/or design of a study. Scholars who are strictly providing oversight, regardless of their professional position, should not be listed as authors.

Like the ICMJE example, your journal should outline criteria required for authors to meet the definition of authorship. ICMJE criteria for authorship are:

  • Contributions to the conception and design of an experiment
  • Participation in the drafting or critical review of the paper
  • Involvement in approving the manuscript for publication

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

Guidelines for avoiding and handling authorship disputes

No journal editor likes having to manage authorship disputes - they can be complex and sometimes get ugly. As a general rule, the best way to manage authorship disputes starts before they happen. Journals should be proactive and have established policies for verifying and ordering author lists. For example, ICMJE requires signed approval from all authors on a paper for any requests made by a researcher to be added to or removed from the author list.

It’s a good idea to require authors to corroborate authorship decisions before a manuscript is submitted for publication, particularly for papers with extensive author lists. The authorship list and its order is a decision that should be settled by the authors. Your journal can take steps to add transparency to author list creation. For example, some journals like The Lancet require authors to provide brief statements on their contributions to the work to assign responsibility and prevent ambiguities.

Journals should establish set practices for editors to follow in the event of a dispute arising among authors. ICMJE has standards that keep journals out of the often hairy arena of determining authorship. The ICMJE policy reads, “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.”

Contributor policy

In any scientific study there is often a long list of people who made the work possible. It’s important to acknowledge scholars who put time and effort into the realization of a study by listing them as contributors. Your journal’s contributor policy will essentially mirror your authorship policy. Contributors are any scholars involved in a study who do not meet all the journal’s criteria for authorship but who were involved in the research.

It can be helpful to include some examples of what constitutes a contributor role, such as:

  • Active supervision of a research group
  • Administrative and/or funding acquisition support
  • Assistance in conducting research or analyzing data
  • Writing and editing assistance

Guidelines for unacceptable authorship

In addition to establishing a clear definition of authorship, it’s important that journals make explicit that any instances of exaggerated or disregarded authorship are not acceptable.

Main areas of unacceptable authorship to address, as noted in the Council of Science Editors guidelines are:

  • Guest authorship: an honorary or courtesy authorship granted out of respect to a researcher or in order to use his or her standing to boost a paper’s credibility
  • Gift authorship: authorship credit granted out of a sense of obligation to a researcher or to benefit him or her
  • Ghost authorship: neglecting to identify a rightful author in a paper

Having clear examples and definitions for unacceptable authorship will make it easier for your editors to address any such issues in a swift and sufficient manner.

We hope these tips help your journal develop authorship policies or improve upon your current policies. Are there any additional considerations for authorship policies that we didn’t mention? Share your thoughts and questions with us in either the comments below or on Twitter @scholasticahq!