With ever increasing demands on researchers to publish, sometimes it feels like the whole world and their dog are vying for authorship on your latest manuscript.

Appropriate and fair representation of those that contributed to sample collection, lab experiments and preparation of the manuscript is essential but can often be complex. So in this article I will attempt to clear those murky waters by presenting some simple criteria, and look at some authorship scenarios that commonly arise in academia.

Where authorship gets complicated

Lots of people can be peripheral, but still vital, to the work presented in your manuscript. They might include:

  • Investigators who helped secure grant funding that enabled the work
  • Lab members and other colleagues who have developed concepts or theories that directly resulted in the experiments carried out in your paper
  • If the research involved animal studies, people who established those models through pilot studies
  • If human participants were used, clinical staff and lab technicians who undertook recruitment and sample collection.

All of these people could theoretically have a claim to authorship on your paper since they played a role in making it happen. That’s going to be one long author list.

So who should make it onto the author list?

Sometimes if authorship ‘rights’ are not clear, following basic criteria from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) can help us resolve any doubts.  They suggest that:

“An author must take responsibility for at least one component of the work, should be able to identify who is responsible for each other component, and should ideally be confident in their co-authors’ ability and integrity.”

In addition, the ICMJE outline three conditions that each author must fully satisfy, regardless of whether funding, resources or project supervision were given. These are:

1) 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

3) Final approval of the version to be published

So in essence, this means that only people with quite a direct role in the work should make the author list, which makes sense. Everyone else should be bumped to…

The acknowledgements section

The acknowledgements section (normally found at the end of the manuscript) can be used to give credit to any individual that does not fully satisfy the above criteria, but should be recognized for their valuable contribution to some aspect of the project.

This section is particularly useful for crediting technicians or other clinical staff who carried out ongoing routine tasks, any colleague(s) from whom you borrowed equipment or reagents and anyone who proof-read or gave advice on manuscript preparation.

But remember that anyone named in the acknowledgments section must be informed prior to submission and their permission received. It is up to the authors where the line is drawn for inclusion here.

Grey areas for of authorship..some case studies

With these guidelines in practice, rules for authorship criteria seem black and white. But there will inevetiably be scenarios that merit further consideration and cases in which authorship disputes will arise. Here are a few common scenarios, with my suggestions on how to deal with them:

Scenario 1: Clinical samples are obtained through hospital staff such as a clinician or pathologist. In some cases, these individuals have provided diagnoses relevant to the study, although not provided intellectual input to the research project itself.

Usually such a contribution alone would not be considered to satisfy authorship-criteria. However, without such samples the study would not have been possible or reliable diagnoses could not be made.

In addition, the clinician/pathologist has taken the time and used their resources to collect these samples. For the good of science, it may therefore be prudent to include these individuals as authors as a ‘compensatory’ measure and to maintain goodwill and therefore continued samples. In such cases, authorship could be further legitimised by asking for more direct input to the manuscript.

Scenario 2: A PhD student spends months optimizing and validating a technique, protocol or reagent(s) that are pivotal to the latest research of the lab and will be utilised in the long-term. In an alternative scenario, the student is involved in large-scale data collection and analysis using microarray platforms that form the basis of many future research projects.

While the PhD student would obtain authorship on all published manuscripts that are a primary result of their project, they would not normally be considered for authorship on secondary manuscripts if there was no additional intellectual input directly relating to that paper. The lab who funded the original research ‘own’ the rights to these data rather than an individual who had a role in the initial work.

Scenario 3: A well-respected and prominent colleague in the department shows some interest in your project following a research symposium. They offer to read the final manuscript and in doing so provide valuable advice on the interpretation and discussion of the results. They suggest that they could be included as an author to grant the paper broader circulation once published.

This ‘honorary’ authorship is not appropriate and clearly does not fulfill the guidelines set by the ICMJE. The offer should be politely declined; however, they could be named in the Acknowledgments section.

Why is it so important to get authorship right?

At times it may seem easier to include authors to avoid potential conflict. On the other hand, it is understandable to want to show goodwill to your colleagues with whom you want to build professional relationships and be inclusive of all hard-working personnel involved in the research project.

However, disregarding these basic authorship-criteria is not only unethical but potentially damaging to yourself, other authors and science as a whole. Too many authors can de-value the contributions made by the key researchers involved and inappropriately place accountability on others. In respect to this last point, it is vital that any individual that is accountable for the research conducted is included as an author in a way that fully meets authorship-criteria.

Ideally, the earlier authorship discussions and decisions take place, the better. This will ensure that the highest professional standards are maintained when it comes to publishing that long-awaited paper.

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