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Publish with us

The importance of remaining accountable

24 February 2021 | 4 min read

By Linda Willems

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Why the role of corresponding author doesn’t stop with publication

The way that research is communicated has undergone radical change; we’ve seen the shift from print to digital, new article types and journal forms have emerged, and technology has transformed how we consume information. But some publishing conventions continue uninterrupted; for example, ensuring each journal article has a corresponding author (CA) assigned. According to the widely-used ICMJE author guidelinesopens in new tab/window, the CA is responsible for communication with the journal during submission, peer review and publication. They also typically ensure that the paper complies with guidelines around authorship, ethics and conflicts of interest, etc.

There are indications that the status and responsibilities of the CA role are evolving – we explore the implications of these shifts in a recent Perspective paper published by Elsevier’s International Center for the Study of Research. However, one aspect of the role that most agree remains critical is acting as a post-publication point of contact for the paper.

But as Dr. Teun Teunis discovered early in his career, it doesn’t always work that way. Teunis, who is now a Plastic Surgery Resident specializing in reconstructive and hand surgery at University Medical Centre Utrecht in the Netherlands, recalls: “One of the first papers I worked on as a research fellow was a systematic review about proximal humerous tumors, reconstructive surgery and functional outcomes. That’s a very specific topic, so there weren’t a lot of studies. Those I could find tended to be a bit older and the data wasn’t presented in a great way. In the end, I decided to contact the corresponding authors requesting their raw data sets.” When his first raft of emails solicited few responses, Teunis tried to track down the corresponding authors online. In the end, he succeeded in retrieving the data from only one third of them.

Teun Teunis

Teunis’ experience sparked a desire to see whether non-responsiveness of corresponding authors was only an issue in orthopedics. Together with two colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital in the US, where he was then working, he decided to undertake a covert study. They sent a data request to the CAs of 450 biomedical research papers. One of their key goals was to discover what proportion of CAs would actually correspond with them. Around 50 percent (190/357) of the authors with working email addresses responded. Logistic regression analysis showed that the odds of replying decreased by 15 percent per yearopens in new tab/window.

The results were disappointing for Teunis: “The role of corresponding author is an important one. Once you’ve published the results, you have a moral obligation to respond to questions about them.”

For many in the community, one way to combat these issues is to openly share the data sets underlying research. Importantly, those data sets should not only be available, but also comply with the FAIR data principlesopens in new tab/window, which focus on Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability and Reuse. Reuse, in particular, has become an urgent issue in science with concerns over reproducibility and wider research integrity issues linked to many studies.

Another issue that Teunis identified is that CA email addresses decay over time. He notes that this is an inevitable consequence of researchers’ mobility, particularly when the CA is a PhD or postdoc, whose position in the lab may be temporary. He does believe institutions could do more to provide bounce back messages containing researchers’ new details, however. In his own case, he always adds his personal email address to his corresponding author contact information. “But if you want to keep personal and private separate, then the trail ends.”

With concerns over unethical papers top of mind, some journal editors prefer the reassurance of communicating with a CA via an institution-approved channel. But, for some authors, using a personal email address is not a choice, it’s a necessity. For example, Dr. Deborah Sweet, Vice President of Editorial at Cell Press, has seen some authors actively choose to use personal contact details because strict firewalls at their universities block emails sent from publishers’ editorial systems. In addition, some institutions in lower-income countries may not have reliable institutional email services.

Deborah Sweet

Some in the community believe that persistent identifiers such as ORCID could prove the answer – although, as they point out, it does rely on the author keeping their ORCID profile up to date. For Teunis and Sweet, another solution might be linking papers to an author’s social media profile; for example, LinkedIn.

What do you think about this issue? We’d love to hear your own experiences in the comments section below. Or perhaps you have an idea to share on how corresponding authors can remain contactable?


Portrait photo of Linda Willems


Linda Willems

Freelance writer and owner

Blue Lime Communications

Read more about Linda Willems