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Writing Basics

What Did You Do? Assigning Authorship in Academic Writing


Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

April 2021

In 2018, Nature published an article concerning so-called “hyperprolific” authors. These authors published over 72 papers per year, a feat that would seem impossible to a majority of researchers. Many speculated that these authors were somehow gaming the system, but evidence for this was lacking. However, among other findings, the study revealed that the criteria for authorship vary greatly throughout scientific disciplines. For example, physics papers were found to credit up to 1,000 authors on a single publication because each member of an international team was listed even though they did not directly contribute to writing or research, a practice that is not widely accepted in the broader scientific community.

Naturally, the article sparked a flurry of questions: What does authorship entail? How should it be properly assigned? Why is detailing specific author contributions so important? Here, we provide some brief insight into the importance of authorship and contributorship as well as common best practices in the area.

Who is an author?

Authorship is an attractive prospect with many advantages. Authorship can lead to professional development, accolades, and influence future funding opportunities. As expected, being listed as an author is of great importance to many, but the line between author and contributor is not always clear. Guidelines vary between disciplines and journals, but the criteria are largely the same. To qualify as an author, the individual must have taken part in all four of these areas:

• Plan or contribute to at least one aspect of the work such as analysis, interpretation, design, or conduct. proposal dismissed without further consideration.
• Contribute in some form to the writing of a draft or revising it for accuracy and scholarly content.
• Grant final approval for the paper to be published.
• Take responsibility for the content of the publication.

These criteria are simple enough and are largely the foundation upon which most claims to authorship are assessed.

How, then, do we properly assign our authors?

The discussion surrounding authorship is a good one to have before the project begins, and it should evolve as the direction of the research moves forward. Once a list of authors is drafted, the order in which authors are listed must be agreed upon. Typically, the lead author contributes the most to the work; they conduct or oversee most of the experiments and write the initial draft of the paper. Subsequent authors, or co-authors, participate in each of the above criteria in some way and should be listed in descending order of contribution. The corresponding author, who is responsible for all communication with the journal, is sometimes recognized as well.

The journal may ask for the rationale behind the order of authors, so be prepared to sign an agreement. With assigning authorship, it is possible to exaggerate or otherwise misrepresent a researcher’s contributions. Each author should be rightfully credited if they are co-authors, but misappropriating authorship is considered scientific misconduct and, if detected, can lead to consequences including having the paper retracted from the publishing journal. One recent example of this can be found here, where two papers were retracted for including an author that did not work on the projects. Thus, it is critical to ensure that each listed author has contributed meaningfully to the work before submission.

How are contributions handled?

Many journals will require authors to submit a contribution statement. This statement spells out what each author did during the research process, such as…

• Designing the experiments
• Conducting research
• Collecting data
• Writing or editing the manuscript
• Creating visual graphics

…and a host of other categories.

Assigning contributorship is much more specific than authorship, and several initiatives have been proposed to streamline the contribution statement process, such as Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT). You can read more about CRediT here.

Who is considered a non-author contributor?

A contributor is a person who has fulfilled at least one of the requirements to be an author but not all of them. They may have provided experimental assistance, proofread the article, provided materials, were the subject of the study, or delivered guidance, among other contributions. Non-author contributors should be recognized in the “Acknowledgments” section. Funding sources are also usually provided here, unless indicated otherwise by the journal guidelines. In addition, journals often encourage authors to disclose any professional technical or writing assistance, but many authors decline. In any case, it is imperative to obtain written permission from the individual or organization before formally acknowledging them as a contributor.

However you decide to list authors and contributions in your paper, one thing is certain: Academic publishing would benefit from universal standards. Maybe, then, we would see fewer hyperprolific authors and it would be easier to tell “who did what” to produce an article.

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