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ORI Introduction to RCR: Chapter 9. Authorship and Publication

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The names that appear at the beginning of a paper serve one important purpose. They let others know who conducted the research and should get credit for it. It is important to know who conducted the research in case there are questions about methods, data, and the interpretation of results. Likewise, the credit derived from publications is used to determine a researcher’s worth. Researchers are valued and promoted in accordance with the quality and quantity of their research publications. Consequently, the authors listed on papers should fairly and accurately represent the person or persons responsible for the work in question.
 
Contribution. Authorship is generally limited to individuals who make significant contributions to the work that is reported. This includes anyone who:
  • was intimately involved in the conception and design of the research,
  • assumed responsibility for data collection and interpretation,
  • participated in drafting the publication, and
  • approved the final version of the publication.
There is disagreement, however, over whether authorship should be limited to individuals who contribute to all phases of a publication or whether individuals who made more limited contributions deserve authorship credit.
 
The widely accepted Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals, authored by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), sets a high standard for authorship. It recommends limiting authorship to persons who contribute to the conception and design of the work or to data collection and interpretation and, in addition, play an important role in drafting and approving the final publication. Anyone who plays a lesser role can be listed under acknowledgments but not at the beginning of the paper as an author.
 
As influential as they are, the ICMJE recommendations on authorship are not uniformly followed, even in journals that subscribe to the ICMJE Requirements. Practices for determining authors vary considerably by discipline and even from laboratory to laboratory. This places most of the responsibility for decisions about authorship on the researchers who participated in the work reported in each publication. These decisions are best made early in any project, to avoid misunderstandings and later disputes about authorship.
 
Importance. Authors are usually listed in their order of importance, with the designation first or last author carrying special weight, although practices again vary by discipline. Academic institutions usually will not promote researchers to the rank of tenured faculty until they have been listed as first or last author on one or more papers.
 
As with the principle of contribution, however, there are no clear rules for determining who should be listed as first author or the order in which other authors should be listed. The ICMJE Requirements simply note that:
 
The order of authorship on the byline should be a jointdecision of the coauthors. Authors should be preparedto explain the order in which authors are listed.
 
Some journals have specific rules for listing authors; others do not, again placing most of the responsibility for this decision on the authors themselves.
 
Corresponding or primary author. Many journals now require one author, called the corresponding or primary author, to assume responsibility for all aspects of a publication, including:
  • the accuracy of the data,
  • the names listed as authors (all deserve authorship and no one has been neglected),
  • approval of the final draft by all authors, and
  • handling all correspondence and responding to inquiries.
In accepting this responsibility, corresponding authors should take special note of the fact that they are acting on behalf of their colleagues. Any mistakes they make or fail to catch will affect their colleagues’ as well as their own careers.