Questions about authorship are among the most sensitive professional issues for researchers. Apart from the fact that researchers live and make careers on their publications, it is important for scientific and research ethical reasons to know who is responsible for the content of the publications.

A feature of research that can create uncertainty about who should be counted as a co-author of a scientific publication is that such publications usually report research that has mainly already been carried out when the paper is being written. Many researchers may have contributed to the research work, but only a few of them may contribute to the writing of the paper. Should everyone still be counted as an author? Or just those who contribute to the writing of the paper?

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) has formulated a recommendation that creates greater clarity. Simplified, the recommendation is the following. Authorship can be given to researchers who clearly meet four criteria. You must: (1) have made substantial contributions to the research study (e.g., designing the study, or collecting, analysing and interpreting data); (2) have contributed to drafting the paper and revising its intellectual content; (3) have approved the final version of the article; (4) have agreed to be responsible for all aspects of the work by ensuring that issues of accuracy and integrity are investigated.

Furthermore, it is recommended that researchers who meet criterion (1) should be invited to participate in the writing process, so that they can also meet criteria (2)(4) and thus be counted as co-authors.

However, research does not always go according to plan. Sometimes the plans need to be adjusted during the research process. This may mean that one of the researchers has already made a significant research effort when the group decides not to include that research in the writing of the paper. How should co-authorship be handled in such a situation, when someone’s results fall out of the publication?

The issue is discussed by Gert Helgesson, Zubin Master and William Bülow in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics. Considering, among other things, how easily disagreement about authorship can disrupt the dynamics of a research group, it is important that there is an established order concerning authorship, which handles situations such as this.

The discussion in the article is based on an imaginary, concrete case: A research group includes three younger researchers, Ann, Bo and Choi. They have all been given individual responsibility for different parts of the planning and execution of the empirical work. They work many hours in the laboratory. When the research group sees the results, they agree on the content of the article to be written. It then turns out that Ann’s and Bo’s analyses are central to the idea in the article, while Choi’s analyses are not. Choi’s results are therefore not included in the article. Should Choi be included as a co-author?

We can easily imagine Choi contributing to the writing process, but what about criterion (1)? If Choi’s results are not described in the article, has she made a significant contribution to the published research study? Helgesson, Master and Bülow point out that the criterion is ambiguous. Of course, making a significant contribution to a research study can mean contributing to the results that are described in the article. But it can also mean contributing to the research process that leads up to the article. The former interpretation excludes Choi as co-author. The latter interpretation makes co-authorship possible for Choi.

The more inclusive interpretation is not unreasonable, as research is a partially uncertain exploratory process. But do any strong reasons support that interpretation? Yes, say Helgesson, Master and Bülow, who state two types of reasons. Firstly, it is about transparency and accountability: what happened and who was involved? Excluding Choi would be misleading. Secondly, it is a matter of proper recognition of merit and of fairness. Choi worked as hard in the laboratory as Ann and Bo and contributed as much to the research that led to the article. Of course, the purpose of the article changed during the process and Choi’s contribution became irrelevant to the content of the article. But her efforts were still relevant to the research process that led up to the article. She also did a good job as a researcher in the group: it seems unfair if her good work by chance should not be recognized in the same way as the other researchers’ work.

The proposal in the article is therefore that the first criterion for authorship should be interpreted as a significant contribution to the research process leading up to the article, and that this should be clarified in the recommendation.

The article also discusses possible counter-arguments to the more inclusive interpretation of the authorship recommendation. If you want to study the reasoning more closely and form your own opinion, read the article: How to Handle Co-authorship When Not Everyone’s Research Contributions Make It into the Paper.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Helgesson, G., Master, Z. & Bülow, W. How to Handle Co-authorship When Not Everyone’s Research Contributions Make It into the Paper. Sci Eng Ethics 27, 27 (2021).

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