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Module 3: Conducting Research Responsibly – Protecting Yourself, Your Research, and Your University

3.3 Authorship

Increasingly, research is being conducted in teams, and publications resulting from this research contain many authors. But should all persons involved in the work be included as authors on publications arising from the research? Are there contributions to the research that do or do not warrant authorship?

Section 5 of the Code states that authorship must be based on substantial contributions in a combination of:

  • Conception and design of the project
  • Analysis and interpretation of the research data
  • Drafting significant parts of the work or critically revising it so as to contribute to the interpretation.

Furthermore, the Code specifies that authorship should not be offered to those who do not meet these requirements. For example, none of the following contributions, in isolation, justifies including a person as an author:

  • Being head of department or personal friend
  • Providing a technical contribution but no other intellectual input to the project or publication
  • Providing routine assistance in some aspects of the project, the acquisition of funding, or general supervision of the research team
  • Providing data that has already been published or materials obtained from third parties, but with no other intellectual input.

It is also important that authorship is offered to all people who meet the above criteria, and those offered authorship must accept or decline in writing.

Your university should:

  • Have a clear authorship policy
  • Develop and maintain criteria for authorship
  • Prevent and manage authorship disputes.

As a researcher you should:

  • Follow policies on authorship including journals’ authorship requirements
  • Agree on authorship
  • Include all authors
  • Do not allow unacceptable inclusions of authorship
  • Acknowledge other contributions fairly
  • Extend authorship policies to web-based publications
  • Keep copies of consent and declined offers of authorship.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) provides extensive guidance online (http://www.icmje.org/) for managing authorship.

But what about author order? In some disciplines, the order of authors carries meaning. For example, in the sciences, the first and last author positions are coveted, with the student or postdoc who ‘did the work’ usually named as first author, while the ‘lab group leader’ usually named as the last author. Does author order mean something different in your discipline? If you are conducting interdisciplinary research, it is worthwhile finding out the norms of author order assignment in the disciplines of your colleagues.

While the Code and other guidelines such as the Vancouver Protocol developed by the ICMJE describe what contributions warrant authorship, they do not provide guidance on determining author order. Over the years, various models have been established to assist researchers determine author order on their publications. A few examples are:

  • Beveridge, C. A. and Morris, S. E. (2007). Order of merit. Nature 448: 508, www.authorder.com
  • Winston, R. B. (1985). A suggested procedure for determining order of authorship in research publications. Journal of Counseling and Development 63: 515-518.

Although provision is usually made for settling authorship disputes, it is worth considering how these may be avoided. It is recommended that collaborating researchers should agree on the process of authorship and author order determinations at an early stage in the research project, and this process should be discussed with additional persons who join the group at a later date. Make sure that you maintain a record of these discussions for later reference.  

Activity 3 (Safeguarding the Murray–Darling case study: "Who is an author?")

What would you do and why?

A senior colleague approaches you for authorship on a paper you have discussed previously in a departmental meeting setting.

This colleague has been of great assistance in the past and is in a position to write an extremely favourable supporting letter for a position you are considering. Additionally, this colleague believes they are losing research momentum and, in the light of the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), is feeling, for the first time in a contributory career, at a disadvantage.

Would you include this colleague as an author?

How would you discuss this with your colleague, and your research group?

Take 10 minutes to make a note of your responses and bring them to the workshop where this will be discussed further.

Questions for further reflection

It is worth noting that the Code has provision for authorship for a researcher who has been involved in analysis and interpretation of the research data or in drafting part or all of the article or critically revising it.

Would you raise these aspects with your senior colleague and with your research group to determine a means to include the senior colleague as an author?

Would you consider there was any conflict of interest in doing so?

And if so, how could this conflict of interest be managed?

Activity 4 (Safeguarding the Murray–Darling case study: "Who is an author 2?")

What would you do and why?

A PhD student comes to you to discuss a problem they are facing. They are finalising a paper for publishing and they have been asked by their supervisor (a well-respected and successful researcher) to have their name put on the paper. The supervisor did no direct work on the research for the paper. In talking with the student it becomes obvious that some of the ideas that formed the genesis of the paper came out of discussions they had with the supervisor.

Take 10 minutes to make a note of your responses and bring them to the workshop where this will be discussed further.

Questions for further reflection

It is worth noting that the Code has provision for authorship for a researcher who has been involved in analysis and interpretation of the research data or in drafting part or all of the article or critically revising it.

Would you raise these aspects with your senior colleague and with your research group to determine a means to include the senior colleague as an author?

Would you consider there was any conflict of interest in doing so?

And if so, how could this conflict of interest be managed?

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