Texas Tech University

Defining Authorship: Thoughts on a Necessary Conversation


Authorship is the currency on which an academic career is built. Publishing our academic achievements is how we share our ideas and contribute to the global advancement of our respective fields. Authorship also is how we attribute credit for those accomplishments. However, it also is known that the current systems of authorship, for defining credit and contribution on scholarly projects, are often ambiguous and misleading and in the worst cases they can be unethical. The listed authors on a manuscript are merely a list of names, and as such, there is no way to determine in what manner or to what degree each author contributed to a project. Furthermore, the manner for which authorship is assigned is highly variable. As such, it is difficult for students to interpret what appropriate authorship entails and whether they are being treated fairly and treating others fairly with regard to opportunities for authorship. Furthermore, authorship disputes are the most common ethical issues raised in research integrity offices.

At the start of this year's graduate student orientation, I had the opportunity to present the importance of research integrity to a large group of new students. As is typical when I speak to students, I encouraged the students to be an active negotiator with regard to authorship. I addressed the importance of engaging their mentor in a conversation regarding the authorship practices in their research group. I explained that authorship is a critical system that assigns credit and as such, often determines a student's marketability upon graduation. However, I did not address any specifics on how authorship should be defined. As such, after the presentation, once again I was approached by students who wanted additional information on how authorship was assigned. And, as always, I did not have a clear answer.

Authorship practices differ widely across disciplines and even between research groups within a particular discipline. As such, on academic campuses like Texas Tech, where the campus incorporates an array of disciplines, authorship cannot be readily defined by the university. Furthermore, due to the academic diversity, it would be inappropriate for the university to dictate authorship practices. In comparison, medical schools often define authorship, but they serve a much smaller array of disciplines than do academic campuses. Most medical schools endorse American Medical Association and/or International Committee of Medical Journal Editors guidelines on authorship. For which (1) "Authorship credit should be based on substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;(2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and (3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet all three conditions. Those meeting fewer than all three criteria should be considered contributors."

Thus, they adhere to the guidelines provided by their primary professional societies. Therefore, when questioned by new students on "how" authorship is determined, I can only provide guidance on how they can best educate themselves. I generally tell them to talk to their mentor but also to investigate how authorship is defined by the professional societies associated with their discipline. I encourage students to educate themselves on the professional recommendations and practices as well as discussing this with the mentor because mentor practices may markedly differ from professional recommendations. Furthermore, in the rare instance that a mentor is unwilling to converse with the student about authorship practices, it is important for students to understand these practices so they can compare their current circumstances with the professional norm. However, in addition to protecting the rights of the student, education safeguards against unintentional "gift authorship" or "author omission."

Gift authorship is the practice of awarding authorship to parties that have not contributed to the project. The more notably unethical practice of gift authorship involves adding prestigious colleagues to the list of authors even though they did not contribute to the project. The presence of influential names on the author list is meant to influence peer review and ease publication. In contrast, gift authorship is often an act of generosity when all members of a research group are included as authors, independent of contribution, with a goal of boosting everyone's career opportunities upon graduation. However, although this practice may be generous, it arguably dilutes the meaning of authorship credit.

In contrast, author omission is the practice of omitting the names of students or colleagues who notably contributed to the project. Sometimes omissions are innocent oversights. When, for example, students leave the lab before publication and their notable contributions are overlooked. However, sometimes authors are purposefully omitted for selfish reasons, a reprehensible authorship practice. Finally, often there is genuine confusion over whether one's contribution is deserving of authorship. A few months ago, I had a student email me to discuss appropriate versus gift authorship for technicians. She felt that technicians were merely following instructions and did not intellectually contribute to a project, and as such, she did not think that they should be listed as authors. She had gotten in a debate with a colleague who felt very differently about the contribution of technicians. Her email was not the first time that I had discussed this issue. However, my experience with technicians was notably different. Technicians with whom I had previously worked not only made an intellectual contribution, but frequently were active trainers in the lab and/or regularly identified and repaired technical problems. As such, my impression of the intellectual contribution of technicians was markedly different than that of the student who emailed me. There is lot of confusion as to when technicians, undergraduate research assistants and even new graduate students have progressed beyond merely following instructions and as such begin to make an intellectual contribution to a project. I have no doubt that there are a variety of opinions on this issue. However, my response to the student was that if construction of her manuscript required her to go to the technician and ask for a description of the methodology that was used in the experiment, then the technician was providing an intellectual contribution that she lacked. As such, the technician deserved authorship credit.

So, how do you initiate a conversation with your mentor about authorship credit and how do you negotiate? To follow the analogy of authorship being "currency," when interviewing for jobs, the conversation and negotiation on wages can be incredibly difficult and awkward to initiate, but we would not want to accept a job without inquiring about the pay scale. Therefore, although we know the importance of our paycheck and the importance of authorship, many of us never receive any training on negotiating credit and payment. As such, we are terrible at initiating the conversation and in engaging in subsequent negotiations. Here are some suggestions on things to consider and approaches on discussing authorship credit. In the best world, you will engage in this discussion early in your graduate training. Furthermore, you should address authorship credit early in all collaborative projects throughout your career—this includes joint projects with fellow graduate students. When a discussion on research credit is addressed early, there is nothing on the line because not much time or effort will be lost if you do not like the practices of the research group or collaborator. At this point it is merely an intellectual discussion, and asking for information on authorship practices is not much different than asking for clarification on research methodology. So, at the end of a lab meeting or research discussion, when you are asked, "Is there anything else we need to discuss?" rather than enduring the awkward silence as everyone averts their eyes from the mentor, look up and ask, "Yes, can we spend a few minutes discussing appropriate authorship practices?"

Once more time and effort are spent on a project, our territorial nature starts to take "ownership" over a project. This is great because it is one of the goals of graduate school. However, if authorship has never been addressed, initiating the conversation at this point puts more pressure on all parties involved. As students are aware, there is a power differential between mentors and students. Mentors have worked hard to earn their status, and as such, they deserve your respect. Also, you should be respectful in addressing credit—you are not a predator fighting for a chunk of meat; you are a junior colleague addressing an uncomfortable discussion. When nervous, some of us (i.e., me) can be confrontational rather than collegial. If this is your tendency, be aware of it, and be careful to not offend or disrespect your mentor. They work hard for you.

In contrast, for those people who are very timid when they approach a difficult discussion, be aware that you are not the poor orphan Oliver Twist of Charles Dicken's 1838 novel begging for additional rations. You are a hardworking colleague who has earned (or are earning) authorship credit and building a career. You are not asking for a handout. It is not unthinkable for you to assert your contribution and engage in a discussion on authorship credit. Most likely, once you initiate the conversation, your mentor will readily discuss their practices and philosophy of authorship.

Do not compare authorship practices in your research group with the practices in other groups or disciplines. Just because other students arrogantly assert that you are "being robbed," does not make it true. Only you know what credit you want and what you deserve. Career building is a personal practice—only you know your true goals.

If the authorship practices of your mentor do not comply with the recommendation by your professional associations, do not assume that they are unethical. In comparison, your mentor's research methods may differ from those of their colleagues. As students, when we notice differing methodology that confuses us, we simply ask why the methodologies differ. Similarly, if you note that authorship practices differ, ask your mentor about their logic regarding authorship. I assure you, your mentor will have strong views on authorship, and ultimately, even if you do not agree with their philosophy, you will learn from them.

Finally, when deciding authorship credit, do not dismiss the contributions of your colleagues. After a long journey of project design, data collection, analysis and writing, it is easy to forget that you were given an existing project to complete, or that your mentor gave you the idea for your research project at a lab meeting, or that a major methodological approach was suggested by a fellow student. It is also easy to dismiss the contributions of collaborators, especially those from outside your area of expertise. You have no means to understand the challenges faced by researchers outside your area of expertise, as it is easy to dismiss their ingenuity and sweat. In addition, as your status changes while maturing as a student, your perception regarding authorship credit will also evolve. As you experience this evolution, try to remember the pride and responsibility you took in your early work, and consider whether that early effort should be rewarded with authorship as you start to mentor junior trainees.

As stated above, the limitations of the current authorship system of credit have been realized. As research becomes more collaborative, it has been widely realized that this limited system needs to be addressed. One of the best proposed modifications of authorship credit is to include a section in all manuscripts that clearly describes the precise contributions of each listed author. We know that as scholarship progresses and becomes more specialized, our depth of knowledge grows while our breadth of knowledge narrows. This requires research to become more collaborative. We need to improve the system of authorship credit to ensure that the effort of all of our colleagues is appropriately recognized. Because, with the current system, there can only be one "first author."

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger. Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.