Who gets credit? Negotiating research authorship

I recently fielded a reference inquiry from an early-career researcher who was preparing to publish a manuscript based on work she had done over the preceding semester. The research direction, however, had kicked off years before, while the researcher was still a graduate student working under an advisor in a different institution, a person she had not seen or heard from since graduation. “The whole original idea came from my advisor,” the researcher began. “Don’t I have an obligation to list them as an author on this new paper?”

Researchers don’t always agree about what contributions to a research project deserve authorship credit, nor on how contributions can be weighed. A recent survey of over 6,000 researchers showed widely diverging opinions on which research-related tasks should merit authorship credit on resulting papers, even among researchers in the same fields and regions and with the same level of experience. These divergent views may, in many cases, be the result of researchers taking on the perceived norms of their own advisors and predecessors. The subsequent disagreement becomes apparent in practice in ways that many academics will recognize: Junior researchers feel obligated to list or prioritize authors who they do not believe contributed as much to a project. Senior researchers feel obligated to lend their name and prestige to projects they have barely touched. Researchers of all career levels feel excluded from projects where they believe they contributed significantly but never receive recognition.

The implications of these practices at first may appear limited to a few raw feelings -- but they go much further. In the wake of widespread inconsistent, overly generous, or overly stringent attribution practices, the rest of us have to wonder: how many of a prolific author’s hundreds of publications did they actually author? How can an academic institution, funder or research partner differentiate between evidence of scientific productivity and evidence of honorifics? What impact does it have on the careers of new researchers to yield recognition of a work to others who did less? How are women and minorities affected by these social-hierarchical power structures? How can graduate students and early-career researchers assert a claim to authorship or position against supervisors and advisors on whose recommendations and endorsements they will rely going forward?

In light of these questions and challenges, a variety of publishing organizations have adopted the use of authorship guidelines and taxonomies that help keep everybody on the same page. Some require submitting authors to indicate specifically the types of contributions that each listed author has made as a condition of submission. These standards help to create a more or less neutral arbiter and provide a starting point for the individuals making up research teams to negotiate roles, responsibilities and authorship from a project’s outset.

Such tools include the CRediT taxonomy, developed with input by the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) and coordinated by the independent Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration (CASRAI). Cell Press and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals, among others, have adopted this taxonomy for use in publishing processes. It defines a high-level classification of 14 diverse roles in the production of publishable research, such as “conceptualization”, “data curation”, and “funding acquisition.”

Other publishing organizations have put forward their own definitions of authorship for guidance. IEEE recognizes as authors those who have fully met three separate criteria; any less, the contributor earns an acknowledgment. The inclusion of authors who do not meet all three of these criteria, or the exclusion of those who do, is considered by IEEE to be “a breach of publishing ethics.” The criteria themselves are somewhat open to interpretation; the first, for instance, specifies that authors should have made “a significant intellectual contribution” to some aspect of the research.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) gets more specific in their authorship and copyright transfer agreement. JAMA’s criteria involve meeting at least one requirement from each of three categories of contribution; contributors only qualify as authors if they can claim responsibility for a set of very specific activities such as “acquisition of data”,  “obtaining funding,” and “critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content” (emphasis added).

Researchers could use any of these standards as jumping off points for a negotiation about research roles and responsibilities, ideally during the project-planning phase, well before any manuscript is ready for submission. In addition, other tools and standards exist – and it would be wise for research teams to look for guidance from journals or publishing houses that are likely to publish the research in question. Your librarian can help.

Beyond the question of credit, researchers within and across disciplines also have different expectations for author sequence on papers, a separate topic for a future blog post.

The researcher I consulted with in the opening paragraph, on review of some of these standards, ultimately decided it would be inappropriate to try to list the former supervisor as an author on her latest work. Many would agree with this decision – but some would not. In the absence of a scholarly consensus on authorship issues, researchers should strive to be aware of the range of practices in play, to understand the implications of these practices, and to be equipped with useful tools such as those cited here to open a conversation among team members and colleagues about the best way forward.

--AM Salaz, Senior Librarian & Information Scientist


Further reading/resources:

National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2009. “Authorship and the Allocation of Credit.” In On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research: Third Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved from https://www.nap.edu/read/12192/chapter/11

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