Authorship of Scientific Articles

“I think we’ve got enough information now, don’t you?”
“All we have is one ‘fact’ you made up.”
“That’s plenty. By the time we add an introduction, a few illustrations, and a conclusion, it will look like a graduate thesis. Besides, I’ve got a secret weapon that will guarantee a good grade! No teacher can resist this! A clear plastic binder! Pretty professional looking, eh?”
“I don’t want co-author credit on this, OK?”
Calvin and Hobbes in “Calvin and Hobbes” by Bill Watterson

One frequent issue in science and cause for a lot of frustration and discord is who gets to be the author of research papers — and the order of these authors. Science is pretty much “publish or perish” these days — you need publications, and you need them with yourself as first author.

Not the best situation for collaborative work.

A good book on writing (“Writing for peer reviewed journals” by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler, 2013) pointed me to two interesting pieces of information regarding who gets to be an author and the order of authors:

1. Who gets to be an author

The best solution I have seen so far regarding who gets to be an author is the Vancouver protocol:

Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3. […] Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group alone does not constitute authorship.

I think what many people ‘overlook’ is that conditions 1 and 2 and 3 have to be fulfilled, and that general supervision does not constitute authorship. In light of issues of plagiarism, data falsification and fabrication, the “final approval” part is also interesting.

2. Order of authors

The order of authors is another issue. Whereas there is “shared (first) authorship”, it is still the name that comes first that is noticed — and in some disciplines, you need publications as first author to get tenure.

Thomson and Kamler point to Authorder, a website which provides a template to assess the different contributions to the paper to determine authorship. If it was not a case of “one person takes the lead who is also the first author”, but a more collaborative work, this might be a solution (haven’t tried it yet, but I am curious to do).


Of course, all these reflections depend on whether there is a research culture that honors individual contribution and sees integrity as a value. In cases where superiors use the power-imbalance to simply ‘dictate’ the author order or use employees as ghostwriter this will not work. But it gives you something to work with — esp. when you are in a position to influence authorship and the order of authors. In any case, it’s best to clarify this issue before you do the work involved.

Categories: Community Aspects, Doing Science, Learning to do Science, Science, Writing

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