Rules for authorship must be clarified

Pär SegerdahlRecently, I wrote a post on honorary authorships in the academia. When I in that post tried to render the ICMJE criteria for academic authorship, I felt dull since I could not figure out how to express in my own words the fourth criterion:

”Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.”

To count as an author of an academic publication, it is not sufficient to contribute to the research, to drafting or revising the intellectual content of the text, and to approve the final version. You must also satisfy this fourth criterion, which has to do with responsibility for research misconduct.

What does the criterion actually say? After reading an opinion piece by Gert Helgesson and Stefan Eriksson in Learned Publishing, I realize that it was not just my stupidity that caused my difficulties to summarize the fourth criterion. The formulation is ambiguous, which may be due to disagreement among the authors of the authorship criteria!

Helgesson and Eriksson find three possible interpretations of the fourth criterion:

  1. Emphasizing the initial ten words (until the first instance of “work”), the criterion seems to say that all authors are responsible, or should be held responsible, for all parts of the article. If the work was fraudulent in some way, all authors should be held responsible, even if they were unaware of what was going on.
  2. Continuing to read the whole criterion, its meaning changes. The criterion then seems to say that if fraudulence is suspected, then all authors have the responsibility to facilitate the investigation of the suspicions (regardless of what part of the work the suspicions concern).
  3. A third interpretation goes further than the second interpretation. It says that an author should support investigations of fraudulence not only after the article was sent to a journal. An author should initiate such investigations him- or herself already during the research and drafting phase, if he or she suspects fraudulence.

It is impossible to determine which interpretation holds. Helgesson and Eriksson consider the third interpretation most reasonable from a research ethical point of view. If this is the intended interpretation, it should be made linguistically unmistakable in the next revision of the authorship criteria, the opinion piece concludes.

Pär Segerdahl

Helgesson, G. and Eriksson, S. Revise the ICMJE Recommendations regarding authorship responsibility! Learned Publishing 2018. doi: 10.1002/leap.1161

This post in Swedish

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