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More Confusion: Do We All Agree on What Constitutes Authorship?

25th August 2015
By Phill Jones

As I was scrolling through Twitter this morning, I came across a tweet from fellow Scholarly Kitchen chef and distinctive eyeglasses wearer, Phil Davis, that pointed to an article in Inside Higher Ed (IHE) on the thorny issue of academic credit and authorship:

The article reports on a piece of research presented by Professor John P Walsh of the Georgia Institute of Technology and recent graduate Sahra Jabbehdari at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Walsh and Jebbehdari report on the apparently high instances of both guest authors (those who didn’t make adequate contribution to be listed) and ghost authors (those who did make a contribution and were left off the list).

One point in the article stood out for me because it shows that authorship is one among many areas of scholarly communication where many people are concerned about ethical standards, but we don’t all agree on what those standards should be. For example, the article in IHE states

…the new research shows that 37 percent of medical papers had a guest author, with about two-thirds of those being authorships granted simply for providing data.

please-do-not-ask-for-credit-as-refusal-often-offendsSo the problem is that about a quarter of academic articles give authorship credit to the person who actually sat at the bench and did the work?

How shocking!

Sarcasm aside, in my experience (I’m an author on 21 peer-reviewed articles, six conference proceedings and one book chapter) working in both biology and physics labs, it was considered only right and proper to include the person who gathered the data as an author on an article, irrespective of whether they were involved in the intellectual design of the experiment. To be clear, it is considered best practice for the primary author to send the manuscript to all authors for feedback and to incorporate any changes until a consensus is reached. In other words, all authors have a responsibility to participate at some level in the writing, but providing data is absolutely adequate for authorship.

The IHE article quotes the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors:

“recent graduate of GITsubstantial contributions to the conception and design” of a research project, a key role in “drafting the article or revising it,” and a role in final approval. Merely getting funding or gathering data are not sufficient, the standards say.

This made me wonder whether this was an example of how sometimes in the publishing industry (and sometimes among librarians), our ideas about how researchers do or should behave is different to the way that they actually behave in practice. Is this an area where the industry’s idea of how researchers do, or should, work is out of step with what the academy itself thinks? I did a bit of googling and I think that the answer is.. kind of.

If we look at the actual guidelines published by ICMJE in 2013, it says

1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
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

The acquisition of data is stated as sufficient reason to be included as an author. So the article in IHE is misinterpreting the ICMJE. To be fair, the IHE article does say simply for providing data, which could be interpreted as authors who provided data but never saw the manuscript prior to submission, but I doubt that.

On the other hand, the Faculty Council of Harvard Medical School state:

Everyone who is listed as an author should have made a substantial, direct, intellectual contribution to the work. For example (in the case of a research report) they should have contributed to the conception, design, analysis and/or interpretation of data. Honorary or guest authorship is not acceptable. Acquisition of funding and provision of technical services, patients, or materials, while they may be essential to the work, are not in themselves sufficient contributions to justify authorship.

The acquisition of data is not directly included as reason for authorship. Arguably, ‘provision of technical services’ might cover data acquisition. Meanwhile, the office of the provost at Yale writes that authorship should be granted to those that ‘conduct’ a component of the research. To me, that means taking the data but again, it’s not clear.

The IHE article quotes Walsh as saying, ‘We are in an era of high-stakes evaluation’. The implication being that this creates incentives to extend the author list. This is absolutely true. My own personal anecdote, I remember once being persuaded to ‘be more generous’ when writing my author list and include a senior faculty member who had made no intellectual contribution to the article but owned the piece of equipment that I was using. Singling out those that actually do the experiments particularly as unworthy of authorship seems unfair to me and runs the risk of addressing the problem of growing author lists by picking on the most junior members of the research community; graduate students and postdocs.

I suggest that we need to take a step back here as an industry and discuss in greater detail what should and should not constitute the right to take credit for a piece of work. Digital Science began working on these ideas some time ago when Amy Brand, who is now Director of the MIT Press, co-chaired the working committee for project CRediT. Moving forward, the discussion needs to include funders, publishers, people working in scientometrics and most importantly, the researchers themselves, so that we shape our system of incentives in such a way as to benefit the advancement of knowledge.

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