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Credit Where Credit’s Due

Under what circumstances should it be deemed legitimate to accept, or moreover to expect, authorship of an academic paper? The question has troubled me from time to time in my research career. The desire to publish is a prerequisite to a successful career for any student, researcher, principal investigator (PI) or professor. But to publish at any cost? Hopefully not. In today’s highly competitive funding climate, the doctrine of “publish or perish” resonates more than ever with academics. Published papers and impact factors are the currency of research groups, and this is particularly applicable to postdoctoral researchers. For a postdoc, times are tough. Contract lengths of three years or less are standard practice, and in this snapshot period of their career, it is essential they publish (preferably as first-named or corresponding author) to demonstrate their capability and productivity to future employers.

So, what is required by an academic journal for a contributor to be rightfully acknowledged as a legitimate author? In my experience, the criteria seem to depend on the journal policy and on the individual editor; however, most appear to rely solely on the honesty of the corresponding author. Strictly speaking, the requirements are straightforward enough and are perhaps best summed-up by the recommendations of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) (1), which state that authorship should be based on four criteria:

  • 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.

To make it crystal clear, all four requirements must be met in order to qualify for authorship. I do wonder how realistic this is – and how often it is adhered to in practice.

Personally, I would consider that a significant input into the work should suffice for acknowledgement as an author. However, I have encountered several situations where authorship expectations have been of a somewhat dubious nature – and where the ability to quote the above guidelines has been very helpful. On one occasion, a PI tried to insist that he should be a named author on a paper (to which he had had zero input) simply because one of his postdocs had contributed to it (and was named). Needless to say, the request was politely declined by referencing the guidelines mentioned above, much to his annoyance. In a similar vein, a professor claimed to have the right to automatic authorship on any of his staff’s papers by virtue of them working within his group – not something that I, or most people, would probably sympathize with. I am also aware of a well-respected scientist who actually removed his postdoc’s name from an article, which the postdoc had singlehandedly written, “for political reasons”. I imagine most postdocs have similar tales to tell.

A (probably) more benign (and somewhat amusing) claim made by one professor of my acquaintance was that the order of authors’ names on a paper – critical for citation purposes – had to be alphabetical. I guess that’s OK if your name is Albert Aardvark, but a bit harsh on the rest of us. Needless to say, the professor had a surname much closer to A than Z...

I believe that no matter what guidelines are in place, the onus is on all of us to self-police the process of authorship, and to be comfortable in excluding names from papers, including our own, in the interest of integrity.

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  1. ICMJE website, bit.ly/1ruKdnU
About the Author
John Griffiths

John is a scientist with over 30 years’ experience in analytical chemistry. He began his working life at the age of 19 in a small laboratory sited on Loughborough Sewage Works where sample matrices were often challenging and frequently malodourous (“Sludge” being his least favourite matrix to test.) Leaving the world of environmental analysis after 12 years, John took a Master’s Degree (Loughborough University) followed by a PhD in Analytical Science (Nottingham Trent University), which ultimately led him to research positions in the less pungent world of academia. For around the next 13 years he worked in proteomics using nanoflow liquid chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry. It was during this time, at both The University of Manchester and The Cancer Research Institute that he published some 30-odd papers and book chapters, as well as recently editing a rather catchy-titled book on proteomics, “Analysis of Protein Post-Translational Modifications by Mass Spectrometry”. Experience predominantly gained here provided the backdrop to the “In my view” article here. John is currently engaged as a Senior Analyst at Hall Analytical Laboratories in Manchester where he works on mass spectrometry data interpretation on data generated in the analysis of Extractables and Leachables. These are typically conducted on single-use medical devices such as filters, syringes, inhaler components etc. John is a Chartered Chemist, Chartered Scientist and Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry as well as being a member of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, the Chromatographic Society and the British Mass Spectrometry Society of which he is a Co-opted board member.

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