Authorship on Academic Papers
This post is part of University of Glasgow’s Research Development and Integrity Specialist Sam Oakley’s series to help demystify the issue of research integrity. If you have any questions feel free to get in contact with her at Sam.Oakley@glasgow.ac.uk.
When we think about who is the author of a book, it’s usually straightforward: someone had the idea and then put it into words. Isn’t the same true for a research paper? Well, it depends…this is one area of academia where subject differences loom large and can be confusing for outsiders. In arts and humanities (my background) the role of “author” is almost always the person who literally wrote the paper and single author works are common. At the other end of the scale, there is a 2015 paper in Physical Review Letters which broke the record with 5,154 authors, the listing of whom took up more space (24 pages) than the article itself (9 pages). Surely they can’t all have contributed actual original words and thoughts to the paper? They did not. In nuclear and particle physics the credit for authorship is given to everyone who worked on the experiment and they are listed alphabetically. In other subject areas order of authors becomes significant. For example, in the medical sciences the lead author would usually be the most active contributor (the one who did most of the actual work) with the Principal Investigator who runs the whole project bringing up the rear last in the list.
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash
So how do you learn the conventions of your subject area? This is definitely something your supervisor or research group should be able to help with. If it hasn’t been discussed yet, ask! The advice is always to discuss authorship at the start of a project or before a paper is drafted and to record decisions in writing because authorship can be an area where disputes arise. This is a consequence of the pressures researchers experience to publish and to get the coveted role of “lead author”. Starting discussions on this can feel daunting, but there are explicit guidelines, such as those issued by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, from professional bodies and journals. There’s also a section on this in the University of Glasgow’s Code of Good Practice in Research, which all our researchers are expected to read and use. Our code has clear statements that:
1. Everyone named as an author should agree to being named (or even just to be acknowledged).
2. Everyone named as an author should have sight of the paper before it is submitted.
This is because being named as an author on a paper gives you a degree of responsibility for its content, as well as credit.
Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash
A technical solution for indicating who did what on a paper is growing in acceptance: the CREDIT taxonomy has a suggested list of 14 roles for contributors, not implying that all would be termed author but signifying responsibility. This is being used by an increasing number of scientific journals. Completing this template for a paper is usually the work of the lead author, but the process can highlight names missed off the author list (ghost authors) or people included as authors who did not actually make a significant contribution (guest authors). Both are not good practice!
It’s also highly recommended to use your ORCiD (Open Researcher and Contributor ID) on all publications to ensure they can be linked to you and not confused with similar named researchers. Not got an ORCiD yet? Read all about it and sign up here: http://orcid.org.
If you want to learn more about authorship and dealing with any issues that arise, it’s one of the topics we cover on the mandatory Research Integrity training – online resources also available. You are very welcome to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any questions or these can be directed to the RI advisors and champions in the Colleges / Schools who will have a better appreciation of any subject-specific publishing conventions.
Recommended Reading: the article “Authorship: who’s on first?” by Amber Dance has some great advice and discussion of the issues around authorship. The UK Research Integrity Office also has its own guide on dealing with Authorship issues.