• December 20, 2014

Let's Clarify Authorship on Scientific Papers

Imagine that one of your colleagues or friends publishes a new book and mentions you on the cover as the co-author. Without letting you know. You walk into a bookstore and see "your" book. Would you feel honored or embarrassed? Would you consider it your book? Would you take the credit if people complimented you? Would you take the criticism if people said it was mediocre?

This summer I discovered my third publication that I did not write. I am a scientist, and I was updating my curriculum vitae for a grant application when I checked the publication database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine for the correct page numbers of one of my publications. The search on my name retrieved an article that I had never seen before, on a topic that is not in my area of expertise.

I contacted the lead author and learned that I had been acknowledged because the study was based on data collected by a consortium of which I was once a member. I was reassured that I am not responsible for the contents of the paper because I am credited as a collaborator, not as an author.

The distinction between author and collaborator rang a bell. When research projects require the contribution of many researchers at different institutes to collect data, diagnose patients’ ailments, or do the lab work, those researchers cannot all be held responsible for the specific question and analysis of the article. In these instances, an article is written by a few authors and one or more "group authors," such as the arcOGEN Consortium or the Honey Bee Genome Sequencing Consortium. The contributing researchers are acknowledged at the bottom of the article, and listed in the publication database as collaborators.

Deciding who is author or collaborator is not arbitrary. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors has specified criteria for the roles and responsibilities of authors and collaborators: Authors should have a substantial contribution in the study, draft or revise the article for important intellectual content, give final approval of the version to be published, and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work. Contributors who meet fewer than four criteria should not be listed as authors, but they can be acknowledged as collaborators.

Of the three articles that I had published without knowing it, I was an author on one and collaborator on two. How could that happen?

The articles had, respectively, tens of contributors, hundreds of them, and over a thousand. Not surprisingly, with so many researchers involved, it can be difficult to keep track of who did what to justify authorship. Some contributed months of hands-on laboratory work, while others had a novel insight that changed the interpretation of the results. Some contributed to multiple articles published by the collaboration, while others, like me, contributed a specific analysis to only one or more articles and did nothing for the rest.

Weighing the various contributions to decide what justifies authorship can be subjective and arbitrary, too, and taking people’s names off the list may do more harm than good to collaboration at large. Selecting a few as authors implies demoting the rest as collaborators, a status that has less impact on indicators of scientific productivity. In longstanding collaborations, removing or demoting contributors may have repercussions for one’s co-authorship on the future articles of others. These are decisions that lead authors do not wish to make if they don’t have to.

And often they don’t have to. Most journals ask authors to disclose their contributions, but they are not verified, and journals rarely question how, say, 20 or so researchers can write a paper together. The contributions of collaborators seldom need to be disclosed. Journals ask the lead author only to certify that the contributors have been informed and agree to be acknowledged—which, apparently, is not always done.

These "phantom" authorship and collaborator listings are not a mere nuisance; they undermine basic scientific values of accuracy, accountability, and integrity. They devalue the work of those who did contribute to the study and give a misleading impression of study credibility.

Collaborators may not be responsible for the entire article, but they may be considered accountable for the parts of the project that fall within the scope of their expertise. Acknowledging them suggests that their specific expertise was available for the project, where it was not, and it suggests that they endorse the study’s data, analyses, and conclusions, which they may not.

Phantom authorships are not entirely new. In 2004 the prestigious journal Nature Materials raised concerns about authorship without authorization, and in 2012 an editorial in Science called for a halt in the granting of "honorary" authorships to senior colleagues or prominent experts who had made no significant contribution to the work.

A recent editorial in Nature proposed a digital taxonomy to identify and document contributions in large-scale collaborations. This would have given me the opportunity to withdraw my phantom authorships, but it may not be sufficient to realign authorship and credit. Digital documentation will work when researchers dare to "correct" one another’s claimed contributions and screen them against the authorship criteria. And that is not a given. After all, the lack of transparency is not an administrative issue but a social issue.

There is a strong incentive for contributors to favor authorship—as the medical-journal editors’ group says, it "confers credit and has important academic, social, and financial implications." Numbers of publications and citations are important indicators of scientific impact in grant applications and promotions.

Therefore, to effectively improve transparency and accountability and restore the value of authorship, the credits of authorship in large-scale collaborations need to be reviewed and refined. Nature Materials has requested that "academic societies and educational institutions should take a leading role in establishing and propagating a code of fair practice." That is indeed where it has to start. With a code and a digital administration—but most of all with a critical attitude.

Cecile Janssens is a professor of translational epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.