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We academics sure love to discuss authorship, don’t we? Previous posts on this blog have addressed authorship issues such as author order and criteria for authorship. The latter post dove deeply into the issue of defining what sorts of contributions are substantial enough to merit authorship. I thought this post and the corresponding comments were great . . . but too focused on one side of authorship at the expense of the other side.
Before I explain what I mean by that, consider the following mini-case studies:
(A) You are a Ph.D. student wrapping up your dissertation. As you finish, a side project to which you contributed substantially is also being written up. You are slated to be a middle author on this paper, but you don’t agree with the way some critical calculations were done. You have mentioned your concerns to the PI, but he wants to keep the calculations the way they are. You fear that if you ask to have your name removed from the side-project paper, the PI will be insulted by your pull-out. You don’t want to spoil a generally good six-year relationship; also, you also will be relying heavily on his letter of recommendation in your job applications. Should you nevertheless ask that your name be removed from the paper?
(B) A coworker is struggling to write a paper that is due soon for a special issue of a journal. It is not clear whether he will meet the deadline. Recognizing your writing skill, the coworker asks you to help revise the paper. You meet with him and provide substantial editorial feedback on two drafts of the paper, addressing both large issues (narrative flow, justification of claims with evidence) and smaller ones. You were not otherwise involved in the planning or execution of this project. Should you accept your coworker’s offer to make you a coauthor?
(C) You are writing up a study in which you were assisted by several undergraduates, who performed biochemical assays under your supervision but are not involved in the preparation of the paper. If you list them as coauthors, their chances of getting into medical school will go up, and you and your department will also be lauded as providing undergrads with substantive research experiences. Should you include the undergrads as authors?
I don’t think the answers to these questions are immediately obvious. They weren’t obvious to me, at least, when I was the “you” in each scenario. But maybe they would be if we could all agree on common standards for authorship!
One standard that I like was articulated in this comment by Jeremy on the post cited above: “Authorship is about responsibility and credit.”
Some may find that too terse to be useful. To me, it cuts right to the heart of an important issue.
Credit and responsibility should go hand in hand — i.e., people should get credit for taking responsibility — but too often we focus mostly on the credit side. For example, many discussions of authorship state or imply that certain activities are sufficient for authorship in and of themselves, irrespective of whether the contributor is aware of and agrees with the resulting paper. This was true of the Dynamic Ecology poll on author contributions, where 65% of respondents thought that collecting lots of data itself justified authorship, and substantial minorities thought that other roles independent of manuscript preparation were themselves sufficient for authorship. While respondents may have assumed that these choices implicitly included “and also read and approved the paper,” I have my doubts. Moreover, published studies such as L Dress Pointed Women High Dress YC Rivets 'S Heeled Red Sandals Color Fight Shoes 66rUqxw (Current Medical Research and Opinion 22:1035-1044) have identified situations in which over half of coauthors do not review and approve the manuscripts on which they are coauthors! (Perhaps some of them reviewed an earlier draft rather than the final submission, but still. . . .)
Why is this responsibility aspect important? Well, loading papers up with peripheral coauthors leads to the dilution of responsibility. If I am a middle author on a 10-author paper, I might decide that the limited credit I’ll receive for the paper absolves me of any need to sweat the details. I might even convince myself that I’m doing the lead author a favor by not troubling him/her with my nitpicky concerns. Multiply this attitude by seven or eight and you have a situation where the lead author’s attempt at a coherent story, however earnest, has not been vetted adequately.
One common-sense counterweight to this dilution-of-responsibility problem is to reaffirm that all coauthors do bear responsibility for their papers, and to enforce this standard consistently in our own paper-writing. While this step alone will not eliminate problems of muddled methods, misplaced data, overstated conclusions, and so forth, it will surely help.
What does it mean to take responsibility for a paper? I suggest the following rule of thumb: each coauthor should attest to both (1) the integrity of his/her parts of the study and (2) the plausibility of the rest of the study. By “plausibility” I mean that the coauthor has reviewed the entire study and considers it reasonable to the best of his/her knowledge. Thus, while middle authors will not generally inspect all of the raw data or sources cited, they should still confirm that the entire paper makes sense to them and seems defensible.
A similar (though even more stringent) rule of thumb is offered by Oikos in its author guidelines: all authors “should be able to present and defend the work in a public forum.”
Thinking of responsibility as a critical component of authorship is not only the right thing to do, it also brings clarity to certain authorship decisions.
For scenario (A) above, if you are focused only on the credit side of authorship, you might elect to remain a coauthor; after all, you did a lot of work on the project. But I claim that if you aren’t willing to take responsibility for the paper, you shouldn’t be included.
Scenario (B) is in some ways the opposite of scenario (A). Here you were not involved in the experimental work, so perhaps you don’t deserve credit for it. But in carefully going through the entire paper multiple times with the lead author and checking for internal consistency, clarity, etc., you took on substantial responsibility, perhaps moreso than most other authors. Here, the credit-AND-responsibility model of authorship suggests that a borderline case might actually have a decent claim to authorship.
Scenario (C) is essentially a variation on scenario (A), and my conclusion is the same: those who can’t or don’t vouch for a paper should not be coauthors, even if their experimental contributions were significant. Undergraduates who carefully check a manuscript may well deserve authorship, but those who don’t probably don’t.
If I seem smug and self-righteous in making these assertions, what you are perceiving is mostly my disappointment in my own limitations and weaknesses. At the time of (A), I chickened out and left my name on the paper. For (C), my desire to be generous led me to include students whose contributions would have been better acknowledged in the Acknowledgments section. I am trying to learn from these experiences, though. Why, just last week I removed my name from a PLoS ONE manuscript!
In conclusion, I hope readers agree with me (and Jeremy) that responsibility is a central part of authorship. But I trust that you will offer caveats, exceptions, and protests in the comments!
Acknowledgments: Jeremy Fox read a draft of this post and made helpful comments. However, he does not bear responsibility for the author’s attempt to turn personal authorship melodramas into a serious blog post, and thus is not a coauthor.
tl;dr: Authorship shouldn’t work like the second panel of this cartoon.