Conventions of Scientific Authorship
By Vijaysree Venkatraman
Pardis Sabeti published her first scientific paper when she was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her name had appeared in acknowledgment sections before, but that was the first time she was listed as an author—and she was first on the author list. It was an important milestone in the development of her scientific career.
Sabeti has moved on. These days, as assistant professor in genomics and systems biology at Harvard University, she usually is listed last on papers that come out of her lab. Although students have to earn their way onto the lab's papers, Sabeti admits to being instinctively inclusive when it comes to authorship. Inclusiveness is appropriate, she says, because her students "are always intellectually involved—not just a pair of hands in the lab."
If scientists want to convey this information by the way their names are ordered, the method is similar to sending smoke signals, in code, on a dark, windy night.—Drummond Rennie
In another lab on the same campus, Stephen Kosslyn, a professor of psychology, employs a more elaborate and specific strategy for assigning authorship. Fifteen years ago, a dispute between a postdoc and a graduate student alerted Kosslyn to the contentiousness of some authorship decisions. Once he explained his rationale to his disgruntled junior colleagues, they agreed that his decision made sense. He decided to spell out his system for future collaborators.
Kosslyn employs a points system, which is explicated on his lab website. Anyone who works with him on a project that results in a paper can earn up to 1000 points, based on the extent of their contribution to six different phases of the project: idea, design, implementation, conducting the experiment, data analysis, and writing. The first and last phases—idea and writing—get the most weight. Those who make a certain cutoff are granted authorship, and their score determines their order on the list. Those who earn less than 100 points are acknowledged in a footnote. "It's very, very rare that there's any sort of issue," he says.
Outside of Kosslyn's lab, the apportionment of credit in an author list—typically the prerogative of the lab head—is rarely straightforward. Although most decisions are uncontroversial, inexplicable omissions and unjustified exclusions are commonplace. Everyone in the scientific community knows stories of authors who shouldn't have been, and non-authors who should have been, Sabeti says.
Science historian Mario Biagioli, the co-editor of the anthology Scientific Authorship: Credit and Intellectual Property in Science, says author attribution has always been a tricky issue. He mentions Robert Boyle, the 17th century chemist whose anonymous employees emerged from the shadows only when he blamed them for things that went wrong, such as explosions. Biagioli says that Boyle's leaving his employees names off his papers wasn't violating any ethical rules, because authorship protocols hadn’t stabilized yet.
Today, reputable journals in every scientific discipline have guidelines for authorship, but the protocols still haven't exactly stabilized, and they rarely address author order. (An exception is high-energy particle physics, where the names of authors—frequently a cast of hundreds—are listed alphabetically.) Authors are free to negotiate their position in the author list with their co-authors, says Sonja Krane, managing editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, in an e-mail.
That order matters greatly for scientists in academia, especially scientists who aren't yet established in independent careers. Publication records weigh heavily in hiring, funding, and promotion decisions, and departments, hiring managers, and personnel committees want to know how, and how much, a candidate contributed to a collaborative project. Often, all they have to go on is their position in the author list.
"In the score-keeping that scientists do, first author is the most coveted slot," says Janet Stemwedel, who teaches ethics in science at San José State University in California and writes the Adventures in Ethics and Science blog. Primary authorship is highly valued because it usually indicates who had the idea, who was the "main mover" in the work, or both, Kosslyn says. And because of the way work gets cited (e.g., "First Author, et al., 2010") the first author's name is the most visible to readers. Sometimes more than one author can be "first," indicated by an asterisk or other typographical symbol and an explanatory note. But the person listed first is always the most visible.
With credit comes responsibility: Who is to blame if something's wrong? Typically—but not always—the author listed last is the head of the lab that hosted most of the research. Ideally, this senior author has inspected all the original data analyzed and reported in a paper, notes Randy Schekman, editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Consequently, the last author often gets the most grief if things go wrong—and much of the credit when things go right. "The proverbial buck stops there," Schekman says.
Having one person ultimately responsible for everything in a paper is a fine idea. Yet, in collaborative projects involving diverse disciplines and institutions, it's unrealistic to expect one person to be able to vouch for every piece of experimental data, says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, the parent publication of Science Careers. Some journals now require a senior author from each lab to review all of the data generated by their labs and its interpretation. The result is that in complex projects, there can be more than one "last author" just as there can be more than one "first" author; this, too, is usually indicated with typographic symbols and explanatory footnotes.
In addition, almost every scientific article specifies at least one "corresponding author," indicated by a typographic mark and a footnote. The corresponding author is the point of contact for editors, readers, and outside researchers who have questions about the contents of the paper. Often, the corresponding author is also the last author, but she or he may be listed first or even in the middle of the author list.
For a student who has been left off an author list, it can be especially maddening to see someone included who obviously doesn't deserve it. Also called "honorary," or "guest," authors, gift authors don't make a significant contribution (or sometimes any contribution at all) to the paper, Stemwedel says. Motivations for gift authorship vary; the principal investigator (PI) may think he's doing the recipient a favor, or she or he may think that adding the name of a well-known scientist will improve the odds of getting published in a top journal. Gift authors can appear anywhere on the author list, but usually they're listed in the middle.
Gift authorship is especially damaging when the recipient is a senior author, says Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Anyone who doesn't realize that the authorship is honorary—that is, almost everyone who reads the paper—will wrongly assume that this well-known scientist has performed his or her role in ensuring the integrity of the data. "Sadly, the paper which had so many fathers till then—as indicated by the author list—suddenly becomes an orphan," Rennie says. Sometimes authorships are even "gifted" without the recipient's knowledge.
Contributor, not author
As collaborations become interdisciplinary and author lists grow longer, who did what becomes even less discernible to readers. "If scientists want to convey this information by the way their names are ordered, the method is similar to sending smoke signals, in code, on a dark, windy night," Rennie says. An unpublished 1995 survey conducted by AAAS—the publisher of Science and Science Careers—found that even editors of clinical journals couldn't agree on the meaning of author order. In a culture that requires precise communication, the traditional means of communicating author's contributions is "scarcely scientific," Rennie says.
So in 1996, Rennie proposed a solution: Each manuscript should contain a clear description of each author's contribution. The team should identify a leader to reassure readers and editors that someone is accountable. Because they describe their roles in print for all to see, the authors can't change their stories later. Top medical journals such as JAMA, The Lancet, British Medical Journal, and Radiology adopted Rennie's proposal.
From an accountability standpoint, the JAMA system would seem to have few disadvantages; Biagioli says the move from "author" to "contributor" has been by far the most innovative step toward transparency in publishing research results. There can be no ethical argument against such explicit authorship, Stemwedel of San José State agrees. Yet the built-in ambiguity of the present system might hold appeal for some, depending where they are in the power structure. For instance, if the last author is a big name, readers could easily assume that the senior scientist provided the intellectual firepower, even if the first author did the heavy lifting, Stemwedel says. Furthermore, agreeing who came up with which fraction of a big idea can be difficult, she adds.
The shift toward a more explicit listing of authorial roles seems likely to continue, but the situation may never completely clarify. Authorship conventions may forever remain specific to the ecologies of particular disciplines, Biagioli says. Schekman adds that journals may never standardize authorship conventions. New entrants to the world of research likely will continue to grapple with the ambiguities of the current system, negotiating for an appropriate spot on the author list.
"Working out relative importance of each person's contribution to the research will still be a judgment call," Stemwedel says. Documenting each author's contribution to the project is good practice, even if a journal doesn't require it, Biagioli advises. A bit of introspection can make the process go more smoothly, says Stemwedel, so "don't wait to for a manuscript to be drafted. At the very beginning of the project, sit down with the members of the team and the PI to discuss which part you plan to take responsibility for." "Revisit this idea at periodic intervals," Biagioli says, so that no one will be surprised to find themselves left off the list, or listed in the middle on a project that they once thought of as theirs.
More from Careers
Academic authorship of journalarticles, books, and other original works is a means by which academics communicate the results of their scholarly work, establish priority for their discoveries, and build their reputation among their peers.
Authorship is a primary basis that employers use to evaluate academic personnel for employment, promotion, and tenure. In academic publishing, authorship of a work is claimed by those making intellectual contributions to the completion of the research described in the work. In simple cases, a solitary scholar carries out a research project and writes the subsequent article or book. In many disciplines, however, collaboration is the norm and issues of authorship can be controversial. In these contexts, authorship can encompass activities other than writing the article; a researcher who comes up with an experimental design and analyzes the data may be considered an author, even if she or he had little role in composing the text describing the results. According to some standards, even writing the entire article would not constitute authorship unless the writer was also involved in at least one other phase of the project.
Guidelines for assigning authorship vary between institutions and disciplines. They may be formally defined or simply cultural custom. Incorrect application of authorship rules occasionally leads to charges of academic misconduct and sanctions for the violator. A 2002 survey of a large sample of researchers who had received funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health revealed that 10% of respondents claimed to have inappropriately assigned authorship credit within the last three years. This was the first large scale survey concerning such issues. In other fields only limited or no empirical data is available.
Authorship in the natural sciences
The natural sciences have no universal standard for authorship, but some major multi-disciplinary journals and institutions have established guidelines for work that they publish. The journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) has an editorial policy that specifies "authorship should be limited to those who have contributed substantially to the work" and furthermore, "authors are strongly encouraged to indicate their specific contributions" as a footnote. The American Chemical Society further specifies that authors are those who also "share responsibility and accountability for the results" and the U.S. National Academies specify "an author who is willing to take credit for a paper must also bear responsibility for its contents. Thus, unless a footnote or the text of the paper explicitly assigns responsibility for different parts of the paper to different authors, the authors whose names appear on a paper must share responsibility for all of it."
Authorship in mathematics, theoretical computer science and high energy physics
In mathematics, the authors are usually listed in alphabetical order (this is the so-called Hardy-Littlewood Rule). This usage is described in the "Information Statements on the Culture of Research and Scholarship in Mathematics" section of the American Mathematical Society website, specifically the 2004 statement: Joint Research and Its Publication.
In other branches of knowledge such as economics, business, finance or particle physics, it is also usual to sort the authors alphabetically.
Authorship in medicine
The medical field defines authorship very narrowly. According to the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals, designation as an author must satisfy four conditions. The author must have:
- Contributed substantially to the conception and design of the study, the acquisition of data, or the analysis and interpretation
- Drafted or provided critical revision of the article
- Provided final approval of the version to publish
- Agreed 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
Acquisition of funding, or general supervision of the research group alone does not constitute authorship. Many authors - especially those in the middle of the byline - do not fulfill these authorship criteria. Some medical journals have abandoned the strict notion of author, with the flexible notion of contributor.
Between about 1980-2010 the average number of authors in medical papers increased, and perhaps tripled.
Authorship in the social sciences
The American Psychological Association (APA) has similar guidelines as medicine for authorship. The APA acknowledge that authorship is not limited to the writing of manuscripts, but must include those who have made substantial contributions to a study such as "formulating the problem or hypothesis, structuring the experimental design, organizing and conducting the statistical analysis, interpreting the results, or writing a major portion of the paper". While the APA guidelines list many other forms of contributions to a study that do not constitute authorship, it does state that combinations of these and other tasks may justify authorship. Like medicine, the APA considers institutional position, such as Department Chair, insufficient for attributing authorship.
Authorship in the humanities
Neither the Modern Languages Association nor the Chicago Manual of Style define requirements for authorship (because usually humanities works are single-authored and the author is responsible for the entire work).
Growing number of authors per paper
From the late 17th century to the 1920s, sole authorship was the norm, and the one-paper-one-author model worked well for distributing credit. Today, shared authorship is common in most academic disciplines, with the exception of the humanities, where sole authorship is still the predominant model. In particular types of research, including particle physics, genome sequencing and clinical trials, a paper's author list can run into the hundreds. In 1998, the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) adopted a (at that time) highly unorthodox policy for assigning authorship. CDF maintains a standard author list. All scientists and engineers working at CDF are added to the standard author list after one year of full-time work; names stay on the list until one year after the worker leaves CDF. Every publication coming out of CDF uses the entire standard author list, in alphabetical order. Other big collaborations, including most particle physics experiments, followed this model. In large, multi-center clinical trials authorship is often used as a reward for recruiting patients.
A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993 reported on a clinical trial conducted in 1,081 hospitals in 15 different countries, involving a total of 41,021 patients. There were 972 authors listed in an appendix and authorship was assigned to a group. In 2015, an article in high-energy physics was published describing the measurement of the mass of the Higgs boson based on collisions in the Large Hadron Collider; the article boasted 5,154 authors, the printed author list needed 24 pages.
Large authors lists have attracted some criticism. They strain guidelines that insist that each author's role be described and that each author is responsible for the validity of the whole work. Such a system treats authorship more as credit for scientific service at the facility in general rather that as an identification of specific contributions. One commentator wrote, "In more than 25 years working as a scientific editor ... I have not been aware of any valid argument for more than three authors per paper, although I recognize that this may not be true for every field." The rise of shared authorship has been attributed to Big Science—scientific experiments that require collaboration and specialization of many individuals.
Alternatively, the increase in multi-authorship might be a consequence of the way scientists are evaluated. Traditionally, scientists were judged by the number of papers they published, and later by the impact of those papers. The former is an estimate of quantity and the latter of quality. Both methods were adequate when single authorship was the norm, but vastly inflate individual contribution when papers are multi-authored. When each author claims each paper and each citation as his/her own, papers and citations are magically multiplied by the number of authors. Furthermore, there is no cost to giving authorship to individuals who made only minor contribution and there is an incentive to do so. Hence, the system rewards heavily multi-authored papers. This problem is openly acknowledged, and it could easily be "corrected" by dividing each paper and its citations by the number of authors.
Finally, the rise in shared authorship may also reflect increased acknowledgment of the contributions of lower level workers, including graduate students and technicians, as well as honorary authorship, while allowing for such collaborations to make an independent statement about the quality and integrity of a scientific work.
Honorary authorship is sometimes granted to those who played no significant role in the work, for a variety of reasons. Until recently, it was standard to list the head of a German department or institution as an author on a paper regardless of input. The United States National Academy of Sciences, however, warns that such practices "dilute the credit due the people who actually did the work, inflate the credentials of those so 'honored,' and make the proper attribution of credit more difficult." The extent to which honorary authorship still occurs is not empirically known. However, it is plausible to expect that it is still widespread, because senior scientists leading large research groups can receive much of their reputation from a long publication list and thus have little motivation to give up honorary authorships.
A possible measure against honorary authorships has been implemented by some scientific journals, in particular by the Nature journals. They demand that each new manuscript must include a statement of responsibility that specifies the contribution of every author. The level of detail varies between the disciplines. Senior persons may still make some vague claim to have "supervised the project", for example, even if they were only in the formal position of a supervisor without having delivered concrete contributions. (The truth content of such statements is usually not checked by independent persons.) However, the need to describe contributions can at least be expected to somewhat reduce honorary authorships. In addition, it may help to identify the perpetrator in a case of scientific fraud.
Ghost authorship occurs when an individual makes a substantial contribution to the research or the writing of the report, but is not listed as an author. Researchers, statisticians and writers (e.g. medical writers or technical writers) become ghost authors when they meet authorship criteria but are not named as an author. Writers who work in this capacity are called ghostwriters.
Ghost authorship has been linked to partnerships between industry and higher education. Two-thirds of industry-initiated randomized trials may have evidence of ghost authorship. Ghost authorship is considered problematic because it may be used to obscure the participation of researchers with conflicts of interest.
Litigation against the pharmaceutical company, Merck over health concerns related to use of their drug, Rofecoxib (brand name Vioxx), revealed examples of ghost authorship. Merck routinely paid medical writing companies to prepare journal manuscripts, and subsequently recruited external, academically affiliated researchers to pose as the authors.
Authors are sometimes included in a list without their permission. Even if this is done with the benign intention to acknowledge some contributions, it is problematic since authors carry responsibility for correctness and thus need to have the opportunity to check the manuscript and possibly demand changes.
Order of authors in a list
Rules for the order of multiple authors in a list have historically varied significantly between fields of research. Some fields list authors in order of their degree of involvement in the work, with the most active contributors listed first; other fields, such as mathematics or engineering (e.g., control theory), sometimes list them alphabetically. Historically biologists tended to place a principal investigator (supervisor or lab head) last in an author list whereas organic chemists might have put him or her first. Research articles in high energy physics, where the author lists can number in the tens to hundreds, often list authors alphabetically. In Computer Science in general the principal contributor is the first in the author list. However, the practice of putting the principal investigator last in the author list has increasingly become an accepted standard across most areas in science and engineering.
Although listing authors in order of the involvement in the project seems straightforward, it often leads to conflict. A study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that more than two-thirds of 919 corresponding authors disagreed with their coauthors regarding contributions of each author.
Responsibilities of authors
Authors' reputations can be damaged if their names appear on a paper that they do not completely understand or with which they were not intimately involved. Numerous guidelines and customs specify that all co-authors must be able to understand and support a paper's major points.
In a notable case, American stem-cell researcher Gerald Schatten had his name listed on a paper co-authored with Hwang Woo-suk. The paper was later exposed as fraudulent and, though Schatten was not accused of participating in the fraud, a panel at his university found that "his failure to more closely oversee research with his name on it does make him guilty of 'research misbehavior.'"
All authors, including co-authors, are usually expected to have made reasonable attempts to check findings submitted for publication. In some cases, co-authors of faked research have been accused of inappropriate behavior or research misconduct for failing to verify reports authored by others or by a commercial sponsor. Examples include the case of Professor Geoffrey Chamberlain named as guest author of papers fabricated by Malcolm Pearce, (Chamberlain was exonerated from collusion in Pearce's deception) and the co-authors of Jan Hendrik Schön at Bell Laboratories. More recent cases include Charles Nemeroff, former editor-in-chief of Neuropsychopharmacology, and the so-called Sheffield Actonel affair.
Additionally, authors are expected to keep all study data for later examination even after publication. Both scientific and academic censure can result from a failure to keep primary data; the case of Ranjit Chandra of Memorial University of Newfoundland provides an example of this. Many scientific journals also require that authors provide information to allow readers to determine whether the authors may have commercial or non-commercial conflicts of interest. Outlined in the author disclosure statement for the American Journal of Human Biology, this is a policy more common in scientific fields where funding often comes from corporate sources. Authors are also commonly required to provide information about ethical aspects of research, particularly where research involves human or animal participants or use of biological material. Provision of incorrect information to journals may be regarded as misconduct. Financial pressures on universities have encouraged this type of misconduct. The majority of recent cases of alleged misconduct involving undisclosed conflicts of interest or failure of the authors to have seen scientific data involve collaborative research between scientists and biotechnology companies.
Anonymous and unclaimed authorship
Authors occasionally forgo claiming authorship, for a number of reasons. Historically some authors have published anonymously to shield themselves when presenting controversial claims. A key example is Robert Chambers' anonymous publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a speculative, pre-Darwinian work on the origins of life and the cosmos. The book argued for an evolutionary view of life in the same spirit as the late Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck had long been discredited among intellectuals by this time and evolutionary (or development) theories were exceedingly unpopular, except among the political radicals, materialists, and atheists - Chambers hoped to avoid Lamarck's fate.
In the 18th century, Émilie du Châtelet began her career as a scientific author by submitting a paper in an annual competition held by the French Academy of Sciences; papers in this competition were submitted anonymously. Initially presenting her work without claiming authorship allowed her to have her work judged by established scientists while avoiding the bias against women in the sciences. She did not win the competition, but eventually her paper was published alongside the winning submissions, under her real name.
Scientists and engineers working in corporate and military organizations are often restricted from publishing and claiming authorship of their work because their results are considered secret property of the organization that employs them. One notable example is that of William Gosset, who was forced to publish his work in statistics under the pseudonym “Student” due to his employment at the Guinness brewery. Another account describes the frustration of physicists working in nuclear weapons programs at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory – years after making a discovery they would read of the same phenomenon being "discovered" by a physicist unaware of the original, secret discovery of the phenomenon.
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