The challenges around defining authorship – you have your say

We asked you what level of involvement earns a researcher a place in the paper’s list of authors

The list of authors attached to a paper is simple and clear, we all have a good idea of what 'authorship' implies. Or do we? 

It is a subject that has often led to tension in the academic community so we asked a group of researchers for their thoughts. The answers we received highlighted a desire for greater guidelines and support; as one researcher responded:

"Authorship is a big responsibility and not a 'title' to be claimed lightly."

With the increasing migration of content to an online environment, the number of ways in which papers can be connected has grown substantially.But while this connectivity establishes that there is a link between an author and a paper, it says nothing about the nature of that link. Did the author write the experiment, analyze the data, or were they responsible for running the research program, i.e. had very little to do with this particular article?

We spoke to researchers who are part of our online community of 500 researchers. Those who participated in our study found it difficult to agree on what constitutes an author. Some believed that the author should be involved in every step of the research process; others that the researcher must contribute 20 percent or more of the paper to be considered an author; while another group felt that a researcher should make an intellectual and written contribution to the paper. Some researchers cautioned against job title, e.g. technician, leading to someone being discounted as an author.

The difference between disciplines

One of the researchers we contacted commented:

"The sequence of the authors on a paper may not necessarily indicate the right amount of contribution to the content. This is an unspoken truth that has to change."

This observation is particularly true when you consider the differences between research disciplines - depending on your field, you may interpret the author list quite differently. This is illustrated in the table below in which we take a look at a fictional paper written by Smith, Taylor and Thorisson.

Table 1: Varied authorship conventions across disciplines referencing a fictional paper written by Smith, Taylor and Thorisson.

Understanding the rules

The controversy and politics around what constitutes authorship appear to be fuelled by the fact that there is no standard definition or criteria for researchers to follow.

One of our survey respondents commented:

"Anybody involved actively in theory generation and experimental design could be considered an author."

Another admitted:

"This is something I have struggled with for years. There was a paper that I started nearly 7 years ago with a few individuals from my undergrad and we were never able to finish the paper…I went on to finish the paper, but never published it, because I never knew if I should include their names on it…It is a moral problem."

While a third remarked:

"I like the fact that some journals have stipulated what constitutes being an author. This makes it easier sometimes to explain to a particular individual why they were not included on a paper, rather than it being left to the lead author to arbitrarily decide who is deserving."

The most widely used authorship rules are known as the 'Vancouver rules' and were laid down by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) (1). The rules, which are followed by several hundred journals – mostly medical – specify that:

"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
3) final approval of the version to be published. 
Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.

Although these rules are clear and many journals are signed up to follow them, there is evidence that compliance is far from complete, and that the rules are not well understood.

Two phenomena that have become recognized over the last few years are 'ghost' authorship and 'guest' authorship.

Guest authorship occurs when an author's name is included on the authoring list despite them Silhouettenot having played any part in the research or authoring process. This can come about in a variety of ways: when it is 'normal lab practice' to include the head of the lab on all publications; when a researcher has left the organization before the paper is written; and in the hope that a senior and well-respected name will confer additional credibility on a research paper and improve the chances of publication in a high-impact journal.

Ghost authorship is a phenomenon that is said to occur when interested parties employ a professional writer, or have staff members on the research team, but don't include these individuals on the final publications list. The implication is that these people would have a conflict of interest in the outcome of the research (or at least the presentation of the research at publication). By omitting their names, the paper affiliations look more neutral. There is a variety of other literature (2) in this area, alleging political / organizational influence in the creation of authorship lists. There is also some evidence that – when computed – tasks that would have previously conferred authorship no longer have this advantage.

As publishing articles is frequently considered to be the main currency of academic recognition – and is increasingly included in formal rule sets that govern academic status and eligibility for funding – so we can expect an increase in the heat governing this debate. Potentially, if the number of authors included in an article continues to increase, we may also witness a decrease in the value of authorship.

Moving to a contributorship model

One option to combat the challenges around defining authorship is to move towards a 'contributorship' model - disclosing what activities the researcher undertook to merit a place on the author list. One of the advantages this would offer is that we could properly acknowledge work undertaken during the research process without conferring a higher status than is merited.

For ethical and copyright / legal reasons, authorship is bound to persist into the future, so contributorship needs to be seen as an extension of existing protocols. Research undertaken in 2012 by one of the authors of this article, Mike Taylor, and colleagues, indicates that nearly all activities can be classified into a set of between 12 and 15 categories. The first three of these are outlined in Table 2 below. This work could be a feature of the various research and collaboration tools (e.g. Mendeley) and services such as ORCID (footnote: ORCID was designed to enable definitions richer than authorship).

Table 2: Three of the categories proposed to classify contributorship

About the study

Elsevier's Research & Academic Relations department, in partnership with Promis Communispace, undertook an open-ended survey with an online community of 500 academic and corporate researchers. Participants in the community are regularly asked to share their thoughts and ideas about the research landscape and Elsevier products and services.

The findings in this article are based upon a discussion that took place in August 2014 and involved 129 researchers.


(1) International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts submitted to Biomedical Journals: Writing and Editing for Biomedical Publication.

(2) A small selection of the literature available on this topic:


Contributor biographies

Adrian Mulligan

Adrian Mulligan is a Research Director in Elsevier's Research & Academic Relations department. He has more than 15 years' experience in STM publishing and much of that time has been spent in research. He oversees Elsevier's Customer Insights Programs, ongoing tracking studies used to drive action in the business and help shape Elsevier strategy.

Mike Taylor

Mike Taylor has worked at Elsevier for 18 years. He was a research specialist in the Elsevier Labs group for six years, and was involved with ORCID (and previous projects) throughout that time. He has recently taken on a new role, Senior Product Manager, in the Research & Application Platform department. Mike's other research interests include altmetrics, contributorship and author networks. Details of his research work can be found on

Lucy Newsum

Lucy Newsum is a Consultant at Promise Communispace, Elsevier's brand and insight planning partners. Lucy manages an online community of 500 researchers and helps Elsevier get closer to its users, understand their behaviors, needs, habits and product usage experience. She works closely with stakeholders across Elsevier to deliver impactful insights which inspire action in the business. Lucy is an experienced qualitative researcher and brand consultant with a BA Honours degree in Sociology from Durham University.

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