Did you ever get into a fight over authorship? Or over the order of the authors? Here are some guidelines and pointers on how to prevent disputes.

Who deserves authorship?

Authorship on articles has important academic, social, and financial implications. This means that people should get credit where credit is due. This should, however also mean that people who do not deserve credit should not get a ‘free ride.’ We all know those people who did absolutely nothing to advance your research but who will demand authorship on a paper regardless. And since these are almost invariable people that are above you in rank you may want to be ready for the situation.

You can start by checking various authorship guidelines. Large numbers of journals use the guidelines of The American Psychological Association (APA) or those of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), so you may want to check these out first.

Authorship guidelines

According to the APA guidelines, an author is considered anyone involved with initial research design, data collection and analysis, manuscript drafting, and final approval. However, the following do not necessarily qualify for authorship: providing funding or resources, mentorship, or contributing research but not helping with the publication itself.

According to the ICMJE guidelines, authorship should be based on the following four criteria:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND    
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • 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.

Alternatively, you check the authorship guidelines of the journal you aim to publish in. More and more journals ask you to specify the contribution each author made, and these contributions are published along with the article.

Determining the order of the authors

The order of authors is usually based on one of these criteria:

  • Relative contribution. Where the first person contributed most (data analysis and writing the manuscript), and the last position is usually reserved for the principal investigator.  There can be many exceptions however, for instance if the person who writes the manuscript is not the one who analyzed the data. Everyone in between the first and last author contributed less in descending order, with the middle position for the one who contributed the least. If necessary multiple “first” authors and/or multiple “last” authors can be assigned.
  • Alphabetically. This is especially common in large collaborations with hundreds of authors.
  • By negotiation. Since the relative contribution is often based on subjective criteria, a lot of negotiation rounds may be necessary to decide the order.

I recently came across a compelling alternative way to solve authorship order in a tweet by Simon Cork (@drsimoncork). He showed an article by M.P. Hassell and R.M. May who determined authorship on a publication in the Journal of Animal Ecology by playing a 25 game of croquet at Imperial College Field Station during the summer of 1973. I don’t want to think about how long the croquet games would have taken to solve the order if there would have been more than two authors. Anyway, it may be an option if you like croquet.

I found another way to solve the order in a recent article by Tanigawa, Dyer, and Bejerano where the order of the authors was based on age.

How many authors can there be on an article?

Anyone who deserves authorship according to the criteria above should be an author. This may result for publications that report data from large collaborations in hundreds of authors. The largest number of authors on a publication in PubMed is 5,399. These large numbers are acceptable for many journals.  

Very few research articles have only one or two authors, and the average number of authors on articles in PubMed is five. I have come across some journals that limit the number of authors, which is rare, and limiting this to six for a research article and three for a short/case report, as done by one medical journal, seems a bit strange in light of the average author number.  

Advice about determining authorships

Decisions about authorship can be especially tricky in large collaborations. It is best if from the start of the collaboration the authors and their order are written down to prevent disputes. But even in small groups it can be helpful to determine the names and order of authors before starting the research, so everyone knows where they stand from the start.

croquet set for determining authorship and order

a croquet set, for sale at Alibaba, handy in case you need to solve authorship order

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