Authorship is increasingly important. Research steadily becomes more interdisciplinary and international, and is often carried out as cooperative projects with many participants. Academic authorship is used as a basis for reputation, employment, and even income.
In this section we will discuss some topics concerning co-authorship:
- Ethical guidelines for co-authorship in different research fields
- What kind of contribution should qualify for authorship?
- What should be the order of authors on the by-line of an article?
- How to handle co-authorship disputes
- Academic integrity
Authors are writers, but where collaboration is the norm, writing is not always seen as the only criterion for being included as an author. Collecting or analysing data, contributing to the design or simply being part of a project can also count as authorship. How this is perceived can vary between research fields.
Examples of unjustified co-authorship:
Gift authorship: a person that does not fulfill the criteria for co-authorship, but has such a strong position within the research group that he/she can expect or demand authorship.
Guest authorship: prominent people that are asked or pressurised to be on the by-line because this is expected to strengthen the project and the chances of publication. For the same reasons, persons can also be put on the by-line without being asked.
Ghost authorship: persons that fulfil the criteria for authorship, but are left out of the author list, either with or without their consent. This is especially a problem with regard to authority within a research community. A supervisor might not always protect the rights of the younger researchers in the group.
In any case, authorship is about taking responsibility for one's own work. All authors should be able to support the main results presented in a paper. Reputations can be discredited if people’s names appear on a paper they have neither written nor reviewed and approved.
On the other hand, those who have contributed, should always be credited for their work. Issues on who should be included in the author list, and in which order, may arise. The leader of a project may decide the order of authors. Young researchers do not always have much to say in the matter, and their contribution to the work may not be mentioned.
Conflicts concerning co-authorship are not uncommon. A study of articles in six prestigious medical journals found that every fourth article had at least one unjustified author, while every tenth article failed to include authors that should have been on the list (Wislar et al., 2011). Another study has shown that more than two-thirds of corresponding authors disagreed with their co-authors regarding the contribution of each author (Ilakovac et al., 2007). There are ongoing discussions on questionable authorship, like gift authorship, hostage authorship, missing authorship, and more. See for instance Bülow & Helgesson, 2018, Tang, 2018 and Ranieri, 2019.
Most journals and scientific communities have established ethical guidelines that regulate co-authorship. These have been more clearly defined in recent decades to prevent controversies and ethical misconduct.
There is a number of separate guidelines for specific research areas. Here, you will find entries for some central subject-specific guidelines, each providing an expression of ethical standards and good research practice in the area.
Social sciences, humanities, law and theology
In social sciences, humanities, law and theology, it is still quite common to publish as a single author. Often the same person has formulated the problem, collected and edited the data, and written the text. Authorship relates to the concept of author rights within copyright law.
Only the persons that have contributed to documentation, analysis and writing are normally included as authors of a work. It is the act of writing that forms the basis for authorship. Therefore, a person that gives some kind of contribution to documentation, formulation of ideas for the analysis, comments on the writing, or technical help would not qualify as an author, unless the person has also contributed substantially to the writing of the work.
As a rule, the criteria for authorship in humanities, law and theology are absolute when it comes to the requirement for writing. There are large collaboration projects within these disciplines as well, but unlike those in the medical and science subjects, it is not necessary to include all contributors on the by-line. Other contributors than the writer are often mentioned in the acknowledgements. Co-authors are usually listed alphabetically.
Within social sciences, authorship is most commonly based on writing, as in the humanities. However, there may be cases where authors can be included in the author list without having written. In such instances, the area of research is more relevant to the medical and science concepts of co-authorship. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) has guidelines for co-authorship similar to those in medicine. Authorship is not only attributed to persons writing a manuscript, but should include others who have made a substantial contribution to a study.
If you would like to learn more about this, you can find further information on co-authorship in social sciences, humanities, law and theology on the Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees' website.
Medicine: The Vancouver recommendations
A scientific publication in medicine will usually have multiple authors. What counts towards authorship is most often regulated by the Vancouver recommendations.
As an attempt to solve problems with misuse of authorship, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (The Vancouver Group, 1985) worked out a standardised set of criteria for authorship, the Vancouver recommendations. Most journals, faculties and research institutions in the field of medicine support the authorship criteria of the Vancouver Group. These recommendations have become an international standard for authorship in medical disciplines.
Authorship should be based on the following:
- Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work;
- Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content;
- Final approval of the version to be published;
- 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
All criteria must be fulfilled.
While in humanities and social sciences, authorship is based on writing a text, the Vancouver recommendations also include collaborative efforts as central to the notion of authorship.
Science, mathematics and technology
Natural sciences, mathematical and technological subjects do not have a universal standard for authorship, but guidelines and accepted practices are still available. There are researchers who research and publish by themselves, and there are projects that consist of several thousand members, such as those at CERN, where the list of authors can consist of a great number of people.
Although standards vary, they all require some degree of contribution and responsibility for the work. As an example, the editorial policy of the journal PNAS states: 'Authorship should be limited to those who have contributed substantially to the work.'
Some examples of guidelines in science, mathematical and technological disciplines:
- The ethical guidelines of the American Physics Society (APS, 2019) states that authorship should be limited to, and should not exclude, those who have made a significant contribution to the concept, design, execution, or interpretation of the research study. Authors should be able to identify their specific contribution to the work.
- The American Chemical Society (ACS, 2021) has criteria for co-authorship similar to those in physics. The ACS specifies that authors share responsibility and accountability for the results presented in a scientific work.
- The guidelines of the American Mathematical Society and the American Statistical Association (AMS, 2019; ASA, 2018) state that all authors should have given significant intellectual contributions to the work to be included on the author list. There can be exceptions to this rule, but these have to be specifically explained. Mathematical publications usually list the authors alphabetically (the Hardy-Littlewood rule). This rule states that anyone that joins collaboration in good faith will be listed equally as an author, regardless of the relative contributions they end up making.
- Guidelines for authorship in biology are closely tied to the guidelines for biomedical publishing (the Vancouver recommendations). Authors should make a substantial intellectual contribution to the work in question. Administrative and economic responsibility alone do not qualify for authorship.
CO-AUTHORSHIP IN PHYSICS – BEHIND THE SCENES OF CERN
Physics is one of the areas where the Vancouver protocol does not have a very strong foothold, simply because the work is so different from that of many other research fields. We have talked to Håvard Helstrup, who is Professor of physics at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, and involved in the ALICE collaboration of CERN.
'The tradition of co-authorship in experimental physics has its roots in the line of work within its field. First you establish an experiment which often includes construction of new equipment, then you measure and store results, and then you look at the results. The results are then systemized and presented as a final result. This line of work has its roots way back to people like Galileo Galilei, who first constructed the telescope, then placed it towards the stars and noted his observations, and then, finally, he published his observations. Let us use ALICE as an example. They started the planning of the experiment in 1990 and in the years to follow a lot of planning and design was done. From 2000 to 2009 the experiment was constructed, built and installed, and in the fall of 2009 the first measures and results were published. Simulations were done from people with computer skills, design and putting it together was done by people with knowledge in electronics, and everybody had to contribute in the day-to-day running of the experiment. The final analysis is verified by experts in modeling and theory. Often it is this last group that does the actual writing, but if no one built the experiment there simply would be no results to analyze.'
ALICE has about 1000 members, and since the first publications issued in 2009, the collaboration has produced hundreds of articles, where most or many of these members are listed as co-authors.
Handling co-authorship disputes
Guidelines governing co-authorship vary between disciplines and even research groups. However, there are some general principles that you should be aware of in order to avoid co-authorship disputes, and also to know how to resolve such disputes if they occur.
There are two types of co-authorship disagreement:
- Disputes: These are usually about whether someone’s contribution is substantial enough to be included on the by-line, and can therefore be a question of interpretation. Disputes can most often be solved by negotiation with the other members of the research group.
- Misconduct: These are cases where someone is proposing listing of co-authors in a manner that does not conform with the guidelines of the journal. These kinds of disputes can be more difficult to solve: if you decide not to act, this could make you a party to unethical conduct. On the other hand, acting might damage your future career. One solution could be to explain to your co-authors that the author list does not follow the guidelines of the journal, involving a risk that the authors could be considered guilty of misconduct.
Note the following tips to help prevent co-authorship disputes:
- Start discussions at an early stage: Start discussing who will be on the author list and the order of authors at the point when you are planning your research, and keep on discussing these issues throughout the process of writing and submitting the manuscript. There may be changes in which people should be considered as authors and their position on the by-line during a research project. The research group should therefore try to have a common understanding of what kind of work merits authorship and who has the main responsibility for writing, submitting and editing the work.
- Address emotional issues: Group dynamics and interpersonal issues can have a huge impact on a project. People that spend a lot of time on a project have strong feelings about how the results should be interpreted and presented, and different people may have different interpretations of how things should be done. Often it will be useful to address problems directly by acknowledging disagreements, setting boundaries and trying to find common ground. Sometimes it might be necessary to involve a neutral third party in the process.
- Sign a formal agreement: If possible, authorship should be decided before you start working on an article. Every team should have a written agreement that states the roles of the different contributors.
- Be consistent: Criteria for co-authorship and order on the by-line should be consistent within the research group, and also with the norms of authorship within the community.
- Know the guidelines: You can help encourage a good culture of co-authorship by being aware of journal-specific guidelines, as well as general guidelines of co-authorship within your field.
- Take responsibility: All authors should check the final version of a publication before it is submitted and it should be possible to withdraw your name if you disagree with the interpretation of the results. If you have been put on the author list without your consent, or if you have been wrongly omitted, you should inform the other authors. In some instances, it is possible to contact the journal to ask for a correction after an article is published, but an editor is unlikely to add your name on the by-line unless all authors agree.
There is an increasing tendency to include statements saying who contributed what in an article. Elsevier provides some resources that can be useful whether or not you plan to publish with them:
CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy)
Factsheet on Authorship
ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor ID) is also witness of an enhanced focus on other contributions than that of the traditional author role.
Who should be listed as authors – and why?
To prevent misunderstandings and disputes, it is advised to discuss, and to solve possible questions on co-authorship early in the process.
Here, you will find some examples of ethical dilemmas regarding co-authorship.
Scenario 1: THE DATA COLLECTOR
Early in her PhD studies, before she got properly started on her own PhD research project, Juanita was heavily involved in planning and collecting data for a study in her research group. After data were collected, she has not been involved further. The principal investigator of that study one day pops her head around the door and says “Juanita, I’m going to submit a manuscript on our study to The Very Prestigious Journal of Made-up Scenario Studies. You’re on the author list. Do you want to have a look before I send it?” Juanita has a look at the manuscript, which she approves of in every way, and happily accepts the authorship.
Should she have?
Scenario 2: THE HEAD OF THE LAB
Professor Topknotch is the head of a successful lab at a Norwegian university. She spends much of her time writing grant applications and supervising PhD candidates and post-docs and has very little time to do hands-on work. Apart from papers she co-authors with her supervisees, she is not involved in manuscript drafting or revision for papers headed up by the other senior researchers attached to her lab. Still, these researchers often include her on the author list.
Scenario 3: HOW TO LIST AUTHORS
A PhD candidate has been working on an article in collaboration with her supervisor and other candidates that are part of the same research project. All the candidates and the supervisor have contributed to the writing, reviewing, and collecting of data, and they are all listed as co-authors on the by-line of the article. They have agreed to list the names alphabetically. The article is in the process of being submitted to a prestigious journal, when the leader of the research project (Professor A) contacts the supervisor. Professor A takes it for granted that he will be on the by-line of the article. He argues that he is an experienced researcher in great demand in the field. He has previously published several articles in the journal, and also knows one of the editors, and putting him on the author list might therefore make it easier to get the article accepted in the journal. He adds that as the project he leads financed the work on the article, it is only reasonable that he should be on the author list. Professor A’s surname begins with an A, and therefore his name will appear first in the by-line if included.
What should be the criteria for authorship? What is the fairest way to list authors on the by-line of the article? Is it important to be listed as first author? Why/why not? Should Professor A be included in the list of authors at all?
Scenario 4: THE HELPFUL CODE EXPERT
Werner is a PhD candidate with a helpful disposition. A fellow PhD candidate and friend belonging to a different research group was struggling with the best way to analyse some data, and Werner decided to help him. He worked on the problem for a couple of days, wrote some functions and other code, and drafted a short, but important paragraph for his friend’s manuscript, explaining the rationale for and technicalities of the analysis. After a favourable review from The Very Prestigious Journal of Made-up Scenario Studies, his friend has revised the manuscript, and asks Werner to have a final look at the whole thing, and make sure it’s all in order. At this point, his friend asks Werner if he wants to be on the author list. Should he be?
Scenario 5: AUTHORSHIP CREDITS
Maria is a PhD candidate at the prestigious National Humour Research Centre. She is conducting research on laughter under the direction of her supervisor, Professor Laughaway. After a preliminary analysis of the findings of her first study, Professor Laughaway suggests that the two of them prepare an article for submission to The Very Prestigious Journal of Made-up Scenario Studies. When Maria finishes the first draft, Professor Laughaway insists on two additions to the list of authors:
Professor Telltales, the scientific director of National Humour Research Centre, who had nothing to do with the study or the writing of the manuscript. Professor Laughaway tells Maria that listing the National Humour Research Centre director as one of the authors means that the paper would have a much better chance of being accepted by The Very Prestigious Journal of Made-up Scenario Studies.
Alexander, the research librarian who helped them conduct a literature search for the study.
Should professor Telltales and Alexander be on the author list? Should Professor Laughaway, as Maria’s supervisor be on the list?
The notion of academic integrity is the cornerstone of all questions of authorship; the 'fundamental values of academic integrity', according to the International Center for Academic Integrity [ICAI] (2021) are as follows:
Honesty forms the indispensable foundation of integrity and is prerequisite for full realization of trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility. Honesty begins with individuals and extends out into the larger community. As students and faculty seek knowledge, they must be honest with themselves and with each other. In study halls and laboratories, in libraries, playing fields, and classrooms, cultivating and practicing honesty lays a foundation for lifelong integrity. Institutions also must commit to being honest with students, faculty, staff, supporters, and their broader communities, for honesty at the organizational level sets the tone for the overall academic endeavor.
Established as a value, honesty allows for and encourages the development of trust. Trust accrues over time, with experience, and is built on a foundation of actions more importantly than words.
Ways to demonstrate honesty:
- Be truthful
- Give credit to the owner of the work (i.e., musician, author, artist, speaker etc.)
- Keep promises
- Provide factual evidence
- Aspire to objectivity, consider all sides and one's own potential preconceptions
The ability to rely on the truth of someone or something is a fundamental pillar of academic pursuit and a necessary foundation of academic work. Members of the academic community must be able to trust that work, whether student work or research, is not falsified and that standards are applied equitably to all. Only with trust can we ground new inquiries in the research of others and move forward with confidence. Trust enables students and researchers to collaborate, share information, and circulate new ideas freely, without fear.
Trust is reciprocal: being worthy of others’ trust and allowing oneself to trust others go hand-in-hand.
Students promote trust by preparing work that is honest, thoughtful, and genuine. Faculty promote trust by setting clear guidelines for assignments and for evaluating student work in an equitable, timely, and forthright manner. Trust is developed by schools that set clear and consistent academic standards, that apply their standards unfailingly and fairly, and that support honest and impartial research. Outside the academic community, trust enables communities to value and rely on scholarly research, teaching, and degrees. Communities of trust engender cooperation by creating environments in which participants expect to treat others—and be treated—with fairness and respect.
Ways to demonstrate trust:
- Clearly state expectations and follow through
- Promote transparency in values, processes, and outcomes
- Trust others
- Give credence
- Encourage mutual understanding
- Act with genuineness
Impartial treatment is an essential factor in the establishment of ethical communities because it reinforces the importance of truth, ideas, logic, and rationality. Important components of fairness include predictability, transparency, and clear, reasonable expectations. All members of the academic community, including faculty, students, administration, and staff have a right to expect fair treatment and a duty to treat others fairly. Faculty members are fair to students, each other, and institutions when they lead by example, communicating expectations clearly, responding to dishonesty consistently, and upholding academic integrity principles unfailingly.
Students engage in fairness by doing their own original work, acknowledging borrowed work appropriately, respecting and upholding academic integrity policies, and by maintaining the good reputation of the institution.
Administrators and staff are fair to their communities when they provide clear, useful, and just policies that help establish and nurture communities of integrity, and that treat students, faculty, staff, alumni, and institutions with respect.
Impartial, consistent, and just responses to dishonesty and integrity breaches are fundamental to educational fairness. Accurate and impartial evaluation also plays an important role in educational processes by establishing trust among faculty and students.
Ways to demonstrate fairness:
- Apply rules and policies consistently
- Engage with others equitably
- Keep an open-mind
- Be objective
- Take responsibility for your own actions
Respect in academic communities is reciprocal and requires showing respect for oneself as well as others. Respect for self means tackling challenges without compromising your own values. Respect for others means valuing the diversity of opinions and appreciating the need to challenge, test, and refine ideas. Scholarly communities succeed when there is respect for community members and for the diverse and sometimes contradictory opinions expressed. The most dynamic and productive learning environments foster active engagement, including rigorous testing, spirited debate, and lively disagreements over ideas tempered by civility and courtesy to those who voice them.
Students show respect when they value and take advantage of opportunities to gain new knowledge by taking an active role in their own education, contributing to discussions, actively listening to other points of view, and performing to the best of their ability.
Faculty show respect by taking students’ ideas seriously, by recognizing them as individuals, helping them develop their ideas, providing full and honest feedback on their work, and valuing their perspectives and their goals.
Members of academic communities further show respect by acknowledging intellectual contributions of other scholars through proper identification and citation of sources. Cultivating environments in which all members show and enjoy respect is both an individual and a collective responsibility.
Ways to demonstrate respect:
- Practice active listening
- Receive feedback willingly
- Accept that others’ thoughts and ideas have validity
- Show empathy· Seek open communication
- Affirm others and accept differences
- Recognize the consequences of our words and actions on others
Upholding the values of integrity is simultaneously an individual duty and a shared concern. Every member of an academic community—each student, staff, faculty member, and administrator—is accountable to themselves and each other for safeguarding the integrity of its scholarship, teaching, research, and service.
Shared responsibility distributes and magnifies the power to effect change. Responsible communities can overcome apathy and inspire others to uphold the academic integrity standards of the group.
Being responsible means standing up against wrongdoing, resisting negative peer pressure, and serving as a positive example. Responsible individuals hold themselves accountable for their own actions and work to discourage and prevent misconduct by others.
Responsible faculty not only create and enforce classroom and institutional policy, but they also clearly communicate expectations around these policies. They keep their word and adhere to their own and their institution’s policies.
Likewise, responsible students seek to obtain and understand information about classroom and institutional policy. They follow these policies and ask questions when they do not understand or disagree with them.
Responsible institutions and administrators work to ensure that the educational process, the institution’s policies, and even its funding sources and extracurricular activities align with the institution’s mission and long-range vision.
Ways to demonstrate responsibility:
- Hold yourself accountable for your actions
- Engage with others in difficult conversations, even when silence might be easier
- Know and follow institutional rules and conduct codes
- Create, understand, and respect personal boundaries
- Follow through with tasks and expectations
- Model good behavior
Courage differs from the preceding fundamental values by being more a quality or capacity of character. However, as with each of the values, courage can be practiced and developed.
Courage often is interpreted as a lack of fear. In reality, courage is the capacity to act in accordance with one’s values despite fear.
Being courageous means acting in accordance with one’s convictions. Like intellectual capacity, courage can only develop in environments where it is tested. Academic communities of integrity, therefore, necessarily include opportunities to make choices, learn from them, and grow. Through this iterative process, courage and the five additional values of academic integrity can develop as interwoven and mutually dependent characteristics.
Students who exhibit courage hold themselves and their fellow learners to the highest standards of academic integrity even when doing so involves risk of negative consequences, such as a bad grade, or reprisal from their peers or others.
Among faculty members, courage manifests itself as the willingness to hold themselves, students, and other faculty accountable for maintaining a culture of integrity as defined by the five additional values. Courageous faculty also hold institutions and administrators accountable for aligning policy with mission and vision and for supporting an environment that fosters integrity. The same is true for administrators.
Members of academic communities must learn to make decisions that demonstrate integrity. They also must then display the courage necessary to act on those decisions. Only by exercising courage is it possible to create communities that are responsible, respectful, trustworthy, fair, and honest and strong enough to endure regardless of the circumstances they face.
Ways to demonstrate courage:
- Be brave even when others might not
- Take a stand to address a wrongdoing and support others doing the same
- Endure discomfort for something you believe in
- Be undaunted in defending integrity
- Be willing to take risk and risk failure
What is regarded as ethically correct research will differ from subject to subject, and we cannot provide information on all subjects on this site. Please refer to the Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees for the guidelines in your field of research.
Bülow, W., & Helgesson, G. (2018). Hostage authorship and the problem of dirty hands. Research Ethics, 14(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747016118764305
Ilakovac, V., Fister, K., Marusic, M., & Marusic, A. (2007). Reliability of disclosure forms of authors' contributions. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 176(1), 41-46. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.060687
International Center for Academic Integrity [ICAI] (2021). The fundamental values of academic integrity (3rd ed.). https://academicintegrity.org/images/pdfs/20019_ICAI-Fundamental-Values_R12.pdf, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Ranieri, V. (2019). Questionable authorship and the problem of dirty hands: Throwing missing authorship into the ring. In response to both Bulow and Helgesson, and Tang. Research Ethics, 15(3–4), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747016119865728
Tang, B. L. (2018). Responding to devious demands for co-authorship: A rejoinder to Bülow and Helgesson’s ‘dirty hands’ justification. Research Ethics, 14(4), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747016118798876
Wislar, J. S., Flanagin, A., Fontanarosa, P. B., & Deangelis, C. D. (2011). Honorary and ghost authorship in high impact biomedical journals: A cross sectional survey. British Medical Journal, 343, Article d6128. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d6128