The Ethics of Authorship in Science

Cartoon by Luana Schito

Cartoon by Luana Schito

The publication of original findings plays a pivotal role in the advancement of science and technology, regardless of the scientific discipline. Moreover, it provides an empirical and theoretical rationale for the generation of new hypotheses, creating a feedforward loop that contributes to the understanding of how things work. Scientific publications are the main conduit for scientists to substantiate their academic performance, and they are used in determining rewards, promotions, and funding support. The notorious phrase “publish or perish,” which is of elusive origin, pinpoints the pressure within the academic environment to publish. Failing to do so might have profound social and financial implications.

Nowadays, the scientific community has several options to disseminate knowledge, including conferences, meetings, formal and informal presentations, workshops, blogs, broadcasts, and magazines. However, the publication of original findings through the peer-review process, whereby original studies are subjected to the critical scrutiny of ad hoc peer reviewers (a practice formally introduced in the mid-18th Century), remains the primary mechanism that ensures accuracy and relevance in line with journal priorities.

As scientific collaborations are increasingly growing (for further reading see Collaborations: The rise of research networks), research has become interdisciplinary, leading to the establishment of teams whereby participants are involved in several aspects of the research, ranging from experimental planning, execution, analysis, and interpretation of the data to writing and revision of manuscripts. To better understand the roles and responsibilities within the team, authors can consult the recommendations developed by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). ICMJE is a group of editors, known as the Vancouver group, focused on the establishment of “guidelines for the format of manuscripts submitted to journals and on the ethical principles related to publication in biomedical journals.” ICMJE recommendations, covering “Conduct, Reporting, Editing and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals,” aim to review best practices within academic publishing and are a fundamental tool to help authors, editors, and each individual involved in the publication processes to generate “accurate, reproducible, clear and unbiased medical journal articles.” ICMJE encourages authors submitting their articles to ICMJE member journals to adhere to these recommendations; however, it has “no authority to monitor or enforce” their use.

According to the ICMJE, an author can be considered as such whenever he or she satisfies four fundamental criteria:

  1. Significant contribution to the ideas and design of the research project, generation of experimental data, and their analysis or interpretation;
  2. Intellectual contribution, such as drafting or critical revision of the work;
  3. Final approval of the manuscript before the submission process, and
  4. Accountability for all the aspects of the research project, including accuracy and integrity.

In an ideal situation, the individuals should decide who will be an author before the study commences and confirm authorship before the manuscript is submitted for publication; however, authorship amendments can be made as the work progresses and whenever they are deemed appropriate. For example, if there is a need to remove or add authors to an already submitted manuscript, authors should provide the editor with an explanation and a signed statement of agreement for the amendment. The authors who fulfill the first criterion should have the opportunity “to participate in the review, drafting, and approval of the manuscript” (2nd and 3rd criteria) without any obstruction. Indeed, failing to provide such an opportunity may result in their exclusion from the work. Furthermore, participants who do not meet all four criteria should be listed in the acknowledgment section along with a description of their contributions. In these circumstances, the acknowledged participants should give their written permission to be named as such. Since it might be challenging to discern between authors and acknowledged participants, the ICMJE provides some examples of activities that do not grant authorship, including, but not limited to:

  1. Funding acquisition
  2. Administrative support
  3. Writing assistance
  4. Technical editing, and
  5. Proofreading (without any other contribution)

Importantly, the authors have the responsibility to determine authorship; indeed, this task is not a responsibility of the journal editors. In situations where a consensus in the authorship is not attained, the institution where the primary work was performed should help to determine authorship.

The author who takes the responsibility to communicate with the journal staff throughout the submission, peer-review, and publication processes is defined as the “corresponding author.” He or she should have the commitment to be available to respond to any queries after the publication and to provide additional information upon request and after the work has been published. The presence of a corresponding author should not prevent the co-authors from being aware of the publication process or status progress. Indeed, ICMJE recommends that editors should keep all authors informed through the corresponding author.

There are situations where individuals contributed significantly to the work but their names are not included in the authorship list. These excluded individuals are often referred to as “ghost” authors and might include professional writers, statisticians, or researchers. There are additional situations of inappropriate authorship whereby the participants are referred to as “gift” authors. This term indicates those individuals who did not make a significant contribution to the research work and do not meet the criteria for authorship but are listed as authors. A third example of inappropriate authorship is the “honorary” authorship, granted to individuals that did not contribute to the research and therefore cannot take responsibility for the work. As these behaviors do not comply with the ICMJE guidelines and compromise the ethics and integrity of science, they are strongly discouraged by the ICMJE and journal policies. The introduction of the “contributorship” policy, whereby the authors are requested to include a brief description of their contribution to justify their place in the author list, is a measure to discourage unethical situations of authorship such as those described above. The “contributorship statement” is usually disclosed as a footnote on the published paper or can be made available to the editors with the submitted manuscript.

Authorship is a critical element, central to the proper divulgation of science that carries inherent responsibility and accountability. Understanding and adhering to the guidelines hereby outlined is, without a doubt, essential to preserve research ethics and social responsibility within the context of a modern, knowledge-based society.

About the Author:


Luana Schito obtained her PhD in Human Pathology from the University of Rome Sapienza, Italy in collaboration with the Institute for Cell Engineering, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, Canada. Her longstanding interest is to understand the role of hypoxia (low oxygen) as an organizing molecular principle in the pathophysiology of human cancers. She is a recipient of the 2016 Women in Cancer Research Scholar Award from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and a member of the AACR Associate Member Council-led fundraising committee. For comments or suggestions, please e-mail her at: lschito@uhnresearch.ca.

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