The question may seem obvious but the area of authorship can be a thorny topic, for researchers and editors alike. As Tim Albert and Liz Wager note in their COPE report ‘How to handle authorship disputes: a guide for new researchers’: in theory, authorship sounds straightforward, but in practice it often causes headaches. And not least when John Bohannon and his random author name generator is on the loose…
Authorship issues are all too common. If disputes in authorship arise during peer review, the review process is suspended until authorship has been agreed by all authors, if necessary involving their institution(s). If disputes occur following publication, a correction to the published article may have to be issued. In worst cases, when the findings reported in the paper become contentious as a result of an authorship dispute, the article may have to be retracted. Retraction Watch cover some of the more bizarre cases on authorship disputes including the case of the unidentifiable author.
There are a number of helpful guidelines on authorship, including those from the International Committee of Journal Editors (ICMJE), but even though BioMed Central subscribes to these guidelines, we still encounter problems with compliance from authors. When investigating revelations of potential research misconduct, for example, we often find that authors claim ignorance of each other’s conduct and this leads to difficulty in taking the correct course of action. We are not alone. The British Medical Journal now requests an author transparency statement on each published article confirming that the lead author affirms that the manuscript is an honest, accurate, and transparent account. And recently, the ICMJE have updated their authorship criteria from their original three points to include a fourth criterion (see below).
According to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) guidelines, to qualify as an author one should have:
1. made substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;
2. been involved in drafting the manuscript or revising it critically for important intellectual content;
3. given final approval of the version to be published. Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content; and
4. agreed 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.
BioMed Central supports the inclusion of this additional fourth point, holding all authors to be accountable for the integrity of the research conducted. This will greatly assist Editors in handling issues related to research misconduct. We have now updated our editorial policies related to authorship, our information for authors from individual journal homepages and our submission checklist, asking authors to agree to ICMJE criteria when they submit their manuscript, to reflect this additional point.
In the meantime we shall continue with some pragmatic measures to reduce authorship disputes. On submission of a manuscript we require the email addresses of all co-authors in order that we can confirm that all parties agree to the submission. We also ensure that appropriate credit is given to each author by specifying the individual contributions of authors within the dedicated “Authors’ contributions” section of the articles we publish.