Credit Where Credit’s Due
When is it right to claim journal authorship – and, more importantly, when is it not?
John Griffiths |
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.
- ICMJE website, bit.ly/1ruKdnU