Scientific Journals - Who Gets Authorship Credit?

The seed of scientific publication was planted back in the 17th century by the Royal Society's first secretary, Henry Oldenburg [pictured], who founded and edited the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society journal. In those times scientists tended to conduct research independently and thus the crediting of ownership was straightforward. Today, with globalization, advanced technologies, more than 25,000 scientific journals, and 6 million scientists, competition is fierce and science has become an arena of both collaborations and rivalry. Scientists are measured by their scientific output (publications) and their respective rank among other publications (journal impact factor). The "publish or perish" phrase is heard along the lab corridors and pushes students and researchers to work harder, search for solutions to technical difficulties and forge intra- and inter laboratory collaborations. Thus the number of single author publications declines and the issue of authorship and credits takes place over scientific passion.

The policy of authorship

The fairness and justification of authorship, as suggested and promoted by leading journals, are as follows:

Qualification as author on a journal paper is eligible when the researcher has:

  1. Significantly contributed to the concept, design, execution, results analysis and drawn conclusions of experiment(s) in the study.
  2. Written or edited part of the manuscript and was involved in the process of peer-review and revisions stage.
  3. Gave approval for publication of the final manuscript.

Even so, since principal investigators (PIs) are the ultimate policy makers in their lab's domain, the norm of publications crediting rests on their shoulders - meaning PIs dictate which student or researcher will qualify as an author (and in most cases, the PI will keep these "set of rules" to themselves). With so much at stake (honor, career advancement, grants/fellowships), the authorship issue can potentially turn a peaceful day at the lab into a battle zone as politics, rivalry and jealousy kicks in.

Toward fair crediting

When it comes to peer-review publication, it is clear that even a decent PI can't satisfy the whims of every student and inter-lab collaborator. Yet, with decent communication PIs can minimize frustration and resentment:

  • Clear communication – The PI should ensure that the project participants (inter- and intra-lab members) are updated regarding the progress of the research project throughout the project's life.
  • Setting expectations – The leading PI should set expectations for all participants. Credit should reflect each person's share of the responsibility as the project progresses. In certain cases, a twist in the project can results in the introduction of new members. And depending on their contributions, the new participants might impact the authorship credit order. In such cases, the PI should explicitly update the team about the anticipated implications.

At my former lab, authors are listed only if they have been directly involved in preparing samples, data generation or in manuscript preparation. Moreover, since the students are the ones that draft the manuscripts, they have the final say over who should or should not appear on the manuscript (with veto by the PI). 

Authorship – a double edged sword 

In some cases, especially in labs that work in a challenging field, results are hard to come by so when a manuscript is finally prepared the PI will add lab members as co-authors to the list of core contributors. These lab members may have had insignificant contributions such as editing a figure in Photoshop or repeating an experiment one more time to ensure robustness of the data. In some cases the added co-authors might read the paper for the first time only after it is published online. This authorship can aid the students at the lab, though it can also backfire when unethical conduct is practiced while conducting the experiments and preparing the manuscript which might lead to a retraction. For example, Dr. Shane Mayack, a post-doc at the Harvard lab of Amy Wagers, was sanctioned by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) for misconduct with regards to several retracted papers that were published in high ranking journals. The co-authors of these papers, which shared these publications, were placed in an awkward position even though their scientific conduct was sound and meticulous. Such cases, in which misconduct by students splotch the reputation of brilliant PIs, highlights the importance of thoroughly reviewing data and interpretation by all co-authors so as to eliminate cases of misconduct (keeping in mind that certain types of misconduct are difficult to identify a-priori).

At the end of the day, authors and co-authors should remember that a journal publication is a tool to share knowledge and to help advance human knowledge while giving credit where it is due. Keeping a strict set of authorship guidelines will make authors feel secure with publications they are associated with.   

Care to share with us your opinion about fair authorship? Comment and let us know!