05-25 group conversation2

[Image above] Credit: PxHere

As to giving credit to whom credit is due, rest assured the best way to do good to one’s-self is to do justice to others. There is plenty for everybody in science, and more than can be consumed in our time.1

—Edward Forbes
1. Postscript to a note to George Wilson (1844). As quoted in George Wilson and Archibald Geikie, Memoir of Edward Forbes F.R.S. (1861), 366.

The greatest men I have ever known have written their own papers.2

—Archibald Malloch
2. In Fielding Hudson Garrison, An Introduction to the History of Medicine (1929), 16.

From the very earliest stages of inquiry through manuscript submission, peer review, and publication, all activities surrounding the publication of scientific articles must be performed with integrity and care. Learning all the ins and outs of ethical publishing practices can take time, and the process may feel overwhelming for first-time authors.

We here at ACerS strive to uphold the highest standards of publications ethics and ensure each article published in our journals is representative of the authors’ work, and that peer review and publication are performed competently and without any conflicts of interest. That is why we would like to welcome you to this article, which is the first in an occasional series discussing aspects of publishing scientific information ethically.

The topic of this post is authorship. Being named an author of an article is both an honor and a responsibility. Each author is accountable for ensuring that the manuscript appropriately represents the research and analysis of the study, both as a whole and for their specific contribution. Authors must confirm that they agree to the terms and conditions of publication and are free of conflicts of interest. In short, authorship is a personal guarantee that can positively or negatively affect the author’s reputation, and each author must agree to make that guarantee.

To be named an author, the research colleague must make a significant or important contribution to the manuscript process at one or more stages of the research and publishing process. While the Contribution Roles Taxonomy (CRediT) (per Wiley, ACerS’ publishing partner), defines 14 different contribution stages, these stages roughly fall into five categories:

  • Defining the question and designing the research study
  • Attaining funding
  • Sample fabrication and experimentation
  • Analysis and interpretation
  • Writing the manuscript

Defining the question

Research is performed to answer a scientific or engineering question. At its highest level, the question defines why the research was performed. Typically, this statement is found the last paragraph of the introduction and is summarized in the opening statement of the abstract.

Designing the research study

This stage defines how the research will pursue the information needed to address the research question. For example, what information is needed? What can be learned from the literature? What are the materials used and in which formats? How are they to be prepared? Which experimental and/or computational tools will be used and what are the experimental conditions?

Generally speaking, the authors contributing to defining and designing are easily identified as the primary investigators such as the professor, graduate student, or graduate assistant (or any combination).

Attaining funding

As with the previous two categories, the work to receive funding to conduct the research is performed by the primary investigator, most likely the supervising professor. If others provide key assistance, such as sharing funds from their projects, they can be added to the list of authors.

Sample fabrication and experimentation

While this stage is conceptually easy to understand, it also leads to the most confusion surrounding who to name as authors and who to honor in the acknowledgements section. Unfortunately, there are no simple rules or easy answers.

In general, the primary investigators must make judgements about the levels of effort, expertise, and importance each researcher contributes within this stage. One person may have performed a few experiments on a specific technique, while another provided input into conditions to improve the quality of data or aids in the interpretation of the results. A third may have made a small contribution in terms of effort, but the information created a substantial breakthrough.

Which of these should be named authors? It is impossible to provide a singular answer, though most would agree that the first person who performed only a few experiments on a specific technique probably should not be a named author (though they likely should appear in the acknowledgements). Whatever the decision, the reasons for inclusion and exclusion should be made clear to the research team and agreed-to by the authors being included.

Analysis and interpretation

Again, there are many levels of possible contributions. Consider an X-ray diffraction pattern. The analysis steps include, among other things,

  • Identification of the peak positions and heights,
  • Comparing to literature data to define the crystal structure(s) that might be present,
  • Calculating d-spacings and/or relative fractions of each crystal structure, and
  • Discussing portions of the pattern that are inconsistent with the crystal structure(s).

How important was the researcher’s assistance to your conclusions? Was the information critical or did is serve to support other findings or arguments? These are questions to consider when determining authorship.

Writing the manuscript

The person who writes the narrative manuscript is an author. Colleagues who made substantial contributions such as editing or writing the revisions also can be included as authors. But the person who only helped with formatting your figures and graphs probably didn’t make a sufficient contribution to be named an author.

Some final thoughts

Determining the authorship of a manuscript should occur prior to the initial submission. The authorship of a manuscript is considered by editors as they choose reviewers. The main reason is the avoidance of conflicts of interest. A reviewer should not be a close colleague (e.g., in the same school or a frequent collaborator) of any author. Nor should the reviewer be a known adversary (e.g., a person in the same field whose own work is directly opposed to the work being reviewed).

However, ACerS editors have received requests to add or remove authors during the review process. The Society policy on this matter has three aspects:

  1. Requests for change of authorship must occur prior to the manuscript being forwarded to Wiley for publication. Once the manuscript is entered into the scientific record, authorship can only be changed by submitting a correction to the journal.
  2. The reasons for the change of authorship must be clearly stated, and all authors, including those added or removed, must sign that statement agreeing to the changes.
  3. The editors make the decision to accept or deny requests for authorship changes.

If the editor denies the request for the authorship change, the authors can decide to complete publication with the current author list or withdraw the manuscript. If an authorship dispute occurs prior to publication and agreement among the authors cannot be reached, publication will be put on hold until the dispute is resolved, or the authors withdraw the manuscript.

Authorship disputes after publication are referred to the ACerS Publications Committee and may result in a Publications Ethics Investigation. Click here to learn more.

To summarize the key points of authorship:

  1. Authors are those that contribute to the research and manuscript writing processes impactfully. Other contributors can be mentioned in the acknowledgements.
  2. Make sure all authors agree to be authors and accept the responsibilities of authorship prior to submission of the manuscript.
  3. Alert the journal editors whenever authorship concerns arise, the earlier the better.