|Home | About | Journals | Submit | Contact Us | Français|
Recently, a reviewer noted in his “Confidential Comments to the Editor” that he believed that authors needed a reminder about their responsibilities. He was moved to this comment because he had reviewed a poorly written manuscript whose list of authors included several who were well-established senior researchers. Some time before that another colleague had expressed concern about failure of recognition (through authorship) of substantial contribution to clinical research made by his colleagues.
These concerns highlight some of the difficulties associated with authorship of scientific papers. In certain publications some individuals who are included as authors appear to have had little to do with either the research or the writing of the paper (gift authorship) and in others there are significant contributors whose work was not recognized by authorship. Then there are those (ghost authors) who are deliberately left off the author list because of an association with an organization or company that stands to benefit from the results of the study.
Some researchers believe that it is the journal that has the responsibility to monitor authorship — and journals do what they can. Typically, journals ask the corresponding author to indicate the contribution each author made to the research and the manuscript. This information is printed in some journals, is published online only by some journals, and is read by the editor but not published in other journals. The problem is that the editor is usually in no position to question the role claimed by any author. Another problem is that the question of failure to recognize substantial contributions to a publication is not addressed by this approach. The main value of this exercise is that responsibility for various aspects of a paper can be assigned to specific authors.
There are established guidelines for authorship; journals in the biomedical sciences typically subscribe to guidelines published by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). The ICMJE first published their statements on authorship credit in 1988 and have updated them at frequent intervals, with the last modification being in 2009 (1). The essence of these guidelines is that authors are individuals who made substantial contribution to the study, approve of the manuscript, and take responsibility for some aspect of the work. Updates to the guidelines have become necessary as the way in which biomedical research is done has changed over time. Recent modifications have addressed the complications that accompany the phenomenon of studies reported by large multidisciplinary groups of scientists.
Nicholas Cozzarelli, editor-in-chief of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA (PNAS) has written on several aspects of journal authorship (2,3). He notes the difficulties associated with assigning authorship of papers involving large numbers of authors from a variety of disciplines. One difficulty is that the interpretation of the sequence of authors varies by discipline. For example, in the biomedical sciences the researcher who conducted the bulk of the work is usually listed first (the primary author) and the person who supervised the project (the senior author) is usually last. By contrast, in the physical sciences the senior author is typically the first author. Imagine how difficult it is to resolve the order of authors when these 2 groups collaborate — and collaboration is certainly a common feature of today’s research.
Giovanni Frazzetto notes that “Authorship is the fulfilment of a responsibility. This applies both to receiving appropriate credit and recognition and to taking the blame when something goes wrong, such as in cases in which data are found to be incorrect, results are irreproducible or conclusions are grossly exaggerated (4).”
Often there is a continuum of contributions to a research paper. It is usually easy to decide on the major contributors who will be recognized by authorship and on those who made a contribution that should be acknowledged but was insufficient for authorship. Then there is an element of judgment regarding those whose contribution might be judged by some to be worthy of authorship and by others as to be not worthy of authorship. How that judgment is exercised is often dependent on the traditions in a department/discipline and on the assessment of the senior author.
Does this business of authorship really matter? It is of crucial importance to researchers whose publications are critical for promotions, recognition, funding, and career development. It is also of value to the readers, who may place confidence in a paper because of the reputation of the authors. These issues were much simpler when there were 1 or 2 authors on most papers. Today it is common to see more than 10 authors, sometimes over 100, and at other times a consortium of unnamed individuals. Attribution, except for primary and senior authors, is becoming more and more complex and we are more dependent than ever before on the good judgment and responsibility of the researchers who make the decisions on authorship.
Use of this article is limited to a single copy for personal study. Anyone interested in obtaining reprints should contact the CVMA office (gro.vmca-amvc@nothguorbh) for additional copies or permission to use this material elsewhere.