The elusive manuscript. It’s what we, as scientists, build our kingdoms on—throwing ourselves into our research, hoping to feel our time in the sun when it all comes to fruition in the form of that glorious body of work. But…what how do you determine who should share in that sunshine? Should you always put your PI on your paper? Does the undergrad who helped you create your graphical abstract in illustrator deserve authorship? How does one navigate the rules of authorship?

The Rules of Authorship

There are several guidelines for authorship, but the most widely used and trusted are those established the by International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). The most up-to-date version states:

Authorship credit should be based on:

  1. Substantial contributions to conception and design, or 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 conditions 1, 2, and 3. Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, alone, does not justify authorship. Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content (1).

Even more specific are examples of “contributions that do not qualify for authorship but that should be acknowledged in the paper”:

  1. Providing funding, technical advice, reagents, samples, or patient data.
  2. Providing students or technical personnel who perform studies.
  3. Routine collection of data.
  4. General supervision of the research group.

Pretty straightforward, yes?

The Reality of Scientific Authorship

Unfortunately, despite these well laid out guidelines, they are many times glossed over. Thinking back to grad school, I was not aware of authorship guidelines and, to this day, have never heard them uttered by colleagues. In reality, the task of assigning authorship is learned “on the job.” So, more often than not, people are included as authors when only one of the above conditions are met (usually #1).

Sometimes people are added to the line-up simply because they are the head of a department that you work in, otherwise known as a “courtesy authorship.” These politics an permeate any institute—resulting in such “gift authorships”, where authorship is given out of respect or friendship or in an attempt to gain favor, or to give the paper a greater sense of legitimacy. Sometimes authorships are traded to improve the appearance of productivity. These “mutual support authorships” are when two or more investigators include their names on each other’s papers to give each investigator more publications per year (2).

The Resolution of Granting Authorship

Although deciding on authorship can be tricky and sticky, it shouldn’t be. Authorship is earned and is an important achievement as a scientist. As The Guidelines for the Conduct of Research in the Intramural Research Program at NIH states: “Authorship is the fulfillment of the responsibility to communicate research results to the scientific community for external evaluation. Authorship is also the primary mechanism for determining the allocation of credit for scientific advances and thus the primary basis for assessing a scientist’s contributions to developing new knowledge. As such, it potentially conveys great benefit, as well as responsibility.”(3)

How can we break the cycle? At this point in the game, it begins at home. Guidelines have been set, and it is our responsibility to our craft and credibility as scientists to make it the new reality.

So, talk with your colleagues about authorship guidelines. Show these guidelines to any students that you mentor. And the next time you’re offered authorship on an article where you don’t feel like you truly contributed as much as you should have to earn that coveted spot, kindly decline (despite any hesitations you might have). Or have an honest conversation with the other authors about what you could do to truly deserve authorship.

On the flip-side, if you’re the one in the business of assigning authors to your paper, be selective about those you choose to list. As our own Jennifer Redig so eloquently concludes: Authorships are not party favors.

What are your opinions on authorships? Comment below!


  1. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals: writing and editing for biomedical publication [Online]. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, Philadelphia, PA, 2007. [24 Mar 2008. ].
  2. Strange, K. Authorships: why not just toss a coin? (2008Am) J. Physiol Cell Physiol.  295(3): C567-C575.
  3. National Institutes of Health. Guidelines for the Conduct of Research in the Intramural Research Program at NIH [Online]. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, 2007. [24 Mar 2008].

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