This post represents a few of my thoughts on the importance of authorship and credit for research, which is a timely issue for those of us in Britain at the moment due to 2013 being the end of our current cycle of government review of research quality (a process largely based upon published outputs). A good start point for readers who are unfamiliar with some of the nuances would seem to be an explanation of the conventions of the author list. Let’s take a typical paper as an example (fictional authors obviously):


The effect of age and gender on intake of dietary fibre in British adults.

Arthur Downtrod, Peter Sidekick, Angela Freeloader, Margaret Leader, Brian Bigboss.

University of East Westhampton.


Why are the authors listed in that order? Why isn’t it alphabetical? Is it just random? Well, it is certainly not the latter. Somewhere in the mists of research time a convention developed that gives some meaning to the ordering of the authors. Traditionally the first author is the individual who did most of the work, either in terms of collecting the data, writing the paper, or both, whilst the final author(s) were the supervisors or principal investigators for the project. Hence in this example it may be reasonable to assume that Arthur Downtrod may be a PhD student (the workhorses of the research environment), Margaret Leader was a PhD supervisor and Brian Bigboss was Principal Investigator (or was maybe just the person who generated the funding for the study- we will return to that theme later).


So what of Sidekick? Most research is not delivered by a single individual and it is often the case that whilst the first author has delivered the lions share, other individuals have also made large contributions and hence earn a place nearer the start of the list. Some papers are actually published with identified joint first authors. That’s Sidekick dealt with then.


Angela Freeloader… I have made the name deliberately pejorative as sadly there are many papers where not all of the authors have genuinely made a significant contribution to the work. Perhaps they donated something used in the measurements, maybe than ran a very minor analysis, perhaps they read a first draft of the paper and made a comment or two. There are many minor actions that could result in being on the author list.



Some Freeloaders are more honourable and deserving of authorship than others and across my career I have come across, and published, with a few individuals who played the publication game very well, without having to do too much tedious research. The department head who got his name on all research that was produced from his unit; the dissertation supervisor who published student work unattributed; the inactive researcher who was given a freebie by colleagues to see him through a rough patch; the young researcher given authorship as a leg-up to get track record in an area. These are dodgy practices which hopefully occur only infrequently these days (at best they are unethical, at worst they are fraud).


The line has to be drawn somewhere and everyone involved in the publishing process has to take responsibility for removing anomalies and unfairness. Did Dr Freeloader contribute sufficient material to the study that the paper could not have been produced without her? Or did she just provide a minor service?  Did Prof Bigboss really help design and implement the study (= authorship) or did he just get the grant to fund the student (not authorship). These things need to be tightened up, and indeed are being tightened up by most journals so that fewer papers appear with absurd numbers of authors where it is patently obvious that there are undeserving beneficiaries of the positive outcomes of being on a publication. The author guidelines for the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics state that:


“ALL named authors must have made an active contribution to the conception and design and/or analysis and interpretation of the data and/or the drafting of the paper and ALL must have critically reviewed its content and have approved the final version submitted for publication. Participation solely in the acquisition of funding or the collection of data does not justify authorship and, except in the case of complex large-scale or multi-centre research, the number of authors should not normally exceed six.”



To a large extent this puts JHND in step with other major journals and certainly fits well with the UK’s latest research quality assessment exercise (Research Excellence Framework), which suggests that to qualify for authorship an individual should either be clearly identified as the lead author or:


a. The author made a substantial contribution either to the conception and design of the study; or to the organisation of the conduct of the study; or to carrying out the study (including acquisition of study data); or to analysis and interpretation of study data.


b. The author helped draft the output; or critique the output for important intellectual content.


The most important outcome of listing individuals in the list of authors is that everyone receives appropriate recognition for their efforts and input. Authorship is a knotty issue that can be a cause of arguments and distress, not least because of the potential for authorship and even position in the author list to shape careers. It is still the case that University promotion panels (here in the UK at any rate) will look at CVs with a view to totting up how many first author papers an individual has, as if this is a genuine indicator of contribution and quality (I quietly ask “is it better to be first author on a bad paper, than middle author on a great paper?”). Authorship really matters!


So when writing up your work, give some careful thought about who is included in the author list and whether anyone is trying to get a free ride. If so, how will you handle the issue and is your solution an ethical one?


One thought on “Authorship

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