Whose Paper is it Anyway? A Discussion on Authorship

Friday, January 11, 2019
By DOSI ASIST
Word cloud generated from question on word association with authorship assignment

Authorship remains both a primary means for sharing scientific discovery and a primary currency for demonstrating an individual’s scientific contribution.  Consequently, deciding authorship has the potential to impact careers, funding for future research, and intellectual credit for a body of work.

The Duke Office of Scientific Integrity (DOSI) recently hosted a Research Town Hall “Whose Paper is it Anyway? A Discussion on Authorship." We used live audience polling to guide the session and bring audience voices into the discussions on authorship criteria, attitudes/experiences and disputes. You can download the full responses from the live audience polling here.

What arose from the discussion was a complex picture, as exemplified when the audience described their “experience of authorship” in one word.  The word cloud produced highlights the varied experience of individuals navigating the complex and high-stakes nature of determining authorship.   While this process of assigning authorship is not always clear, the town hall discussion highlighted a few common themes for guiding this process with improved integrity and equity.  

1) Communication is Essential.  While specific communication strategies around authorship varied among the panelists, there was unanimous agreement that communication about authorship expectations is critical. Many panelists cited the importance of starting discussions about contributions and expectations for authorship early in the research project.  As projects evolve, the research team must discuss how those project changes will affect authorship to ensure that no one will be surprised at the time of manuscript submission or publication.  Assumptions about authorship can eventually lead to authorship disagreements.

If negotiations around authorship are poorly communicated, it may foster negative impacts, such as limiting potential future collaborations, alienating colleagues, and providing justification for retaliatory behaviors.  In large collaborative research teams, norms and expectations can vary among disciplines or cultures, which may add to the communication challenge.  The important point is not to ignore other people’s perspectives on authorship, but rather to discuss them openly to find a resolution.

In addition to transparent communication among authors, another panelist brought up the importance of communication with the publisher, to consider the authors’ rights to their own texts.  The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) helps authors understand and be aware of the common and uncommon publishing practices including issues of re-use of article text and open access considerations.

2) Defining the Rules. There are no set rules for authorship, but there are multiple authorship criteria, including discipline-specific criteria. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommends authors must write, approve of, and take responsibility for the manuscript, and must have made a “substantial contribution” to the work.  However, defining which contributions are substantial is difficult given that projects can take years and may include multiple contributors.  One panelists’ “litmus test” for defining a substantial contribution is to ask whether the paper could have been completed without a person’s contribution. Another standard is to ask if an individual’s contribution is “original”.

The ICMJE also recommends that all authors be accountable for all aspects of the work.  One of the panelists described this recommendation as particularly worrisome in this era of multidisciplinary collaboration and highly specialized fields where people may lack the expertise to fully review all raw data.  One way to help make responsibilities more transparent, adopted by some journals, is for each author to list their contribution to the research project and manuscript. Even if not required by a journal, listing contributions may help with accountability.   

3) Recognizing Inherent Power Imbalances.  It is critical for researchers to acknowledge the existence of power dynamics in authorship discussions.  While there are no quick solutions to ameliorate power imbalances in academia, recognizing them is important to enable improved communication about authorship. Faculty advisors must be aware of their power and work with trainees and junior faculty to ensure that attribution is assigned in a manner that is equitable and transparent.  The definition of “substantial contribution” is subjective and thus inherently subject to implicit bias.  Biases affecting the attribution of authorship may include job title, seniority, education level, gender, and field of study. 

Power imbalances may also be present in collaborations between resource-rich and resource-poor research groups.  In these instances, authorship discussions must carefully address equity and collaborators might need to be more open-minded about authorship criteria.

What emerged from the use of live audience polling and subsequent discussion was a view into the complex world of assigning authorship. Through the research town hall series, we cannot always address all audience questions. However, our hope in hosting them is to start a conversation that can continue with colleagues at and beyond Duke. As you discuss authorship, remember to consider the importance of communication, varying views on authorship criteria, and inherent power imbalances.

We look forward to seeing you at future research town hall sessions! As always, we are here to ASIST.


Many thanks to our wonderful panelists:

Geeta Swamy, Vice Dean and Associate Vice Provost for Scientific Integrity

Michael C. Fitzgerald Professor and Dir. of Graduate Studies, Department of Chemistry

Cathleen Colon-Emeric, Professor of Medicine and Office of Research Mentoring

Raphael Valdivia, Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology

Elise Smith, Fellow, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

• Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, Assistant Professor of the Practice in the Thompson Writing Program

Panelists at Authorship Research Town Hall