Who is an author?

In technical writing the question of who is an author is more important than you might realize. Although the obvious answer is that it’s the person who wrote the report, some of the ethical implications aren’t at all obvious. Of course misrepresenting authorship is unethical. But why does it matter so much?

Authorship confers credit and has important academic, social, and financial implications. Authorship also implies responsibility and accountability for published work.—International Committee of Medical Journal Editors

What makes someone an author?

Everyone whose name appears in the byline should meet all three of the following criteria.

  • Substantial contribution to the conception, design, or execution of the testing, or the analysis or interpretation of the data
  • Drafting or critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content
  • Final approval of the manuscript.

The lead author—that is, the person whose name appears first on the byline—takes primary responsibility for the manuscript. In an academic setting, that person is usually the student. However, each author takes responsibility for at least one component of the work and should be able to identify who is responsible for all of the other components.

Acknowledgments

What about the technician who performed the testing, the agency that sponsored the work, or the senior scientist whose critiques helped refine the discussion? Clearly their contributions were essential. But anyone who doesn’t meet all three criteria shouldn’t be in the byline. This is where the acknowledgments come in. In the case of the technician, it’s simple courtesy to thank him or her for all that work. In the case of the sponsor, it’s more than that: the reader needs to know if there’s a financial interest in the outcome. As for the advisor, the journal editors need to know not to send the manuscript to that person for review. They’re simply too close to the project—and the authors—to be objective.

I tell my students to think of the acknowledgment as a thank-you note. That is, it should thank each person and say specifically what they did to contribute to the work. If it’s being published, everyone you acknowledge should be aware of that fact. Some journals require the signature of everyone in the acknowledgment, as their inclusion may be seen as concurrence with the findings of the paper.

Some sponsors have a standard disclaimer that places sole responsibility for the work on the authors rather than on the sponsor. In a way, such a disclaimer protects both the sponsor and the authors. That is, the authors clearly have the final say in the content of the manuscript, and the sponsor is not liable for any errors. The acknowledgment is an appropriate place for such disclaimers.

Author biographies or affiliations

Different publications have different ways of letting the reader know who the authors are. Some include the authors’ affiliations in the byline. Others include brief biographical sketches, which will have some additional information such as where they got their PhDs, highlights of their careers, and membership in professional societies. While the current affiliation is the most important indication of possible conflicts of interest, the biographical sketch may contain other clues.

No credit where credit is due

Sadly, people don’t always follow best practices. Let’s look at some common violations and their implications.

If you grew up in the United States, your best opportunity to experience feudalism is to enroll in a PhD program. Essentially you apprentice yourself to a senior researcher for an undefined length of time. The idea is that you’ll learn by doing—in this case, conducting research under the direction of your advisor. That person is the sole arbiter as to whether your work constitutes an original contribution to your field of sufficient significance to merit a PhD. Unfortunately, the exclusive power of the advisor to determine what’s good enough renders the student vulnerable to exploitation.

You may be familiar with the term “ghost author” in the sense of the professional writer who helps celebrities write their memoirs. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a contractual agreement in which the writer agrees to do the work for a fee. Their name should appear somewhere on the book jacket, but even if it doesn’t, no one suffers for it.

For some graduate students, it’s not uncommon to do most or all of the work only to see the professor’s name alone on the byline. In the “publish or perish” world of academia, this kind of ghost authorship cheats the student of credit for the work and has implications for their future career.

Sometimes the ghost writer wants to remain behind the scenes. For example, employees of a drug company might report on a study of the efficacy of one of their products but publish it under the name of an academic researcher. But readers need to know who actually did the work so they can understand the financial interest behind it.

Credit where credit is not due

Other names may appear on the byline without their having contributed anything. There are different terms for this situation depending on the circumstances. Gift authorship is putting someone’s name on the byline as a tit for tat. That is, I include you as a gift author on my paper and you include me on yours. In so doing, we both deceptively inflate our publication records.

Honorary authorship occurs when a senior researcher gets on the byline simply by virtue of their position. This person may have obtained funding for the work, but otherwise contributed nothing.

Guest authorship is naming a senior researcher as author to lend prestige to the paper or make it more likely to be published. As a journal editor, I received several manuscripts under the name of a professor who hadn’t been an active researcher for several years. I assigned a different set of reviewers for each manuscript.

When the reviews came in, there was good reason to reject all of the manuscripts. Reviewers of two different manuscripts wondered whether the famous professor had even read the work that bore his name. In one, some of the conclusions had no data whatsoever to support them. In another, the written descriptions of the experimental procedures contradicted what the photographs of the apparatus showed. I asked him what was going on. He cheerfully volunteered that he’d told his former students to put his name on their manuscripts “to give them credibility”.  And no, he hadn’t read them. Clearly he thought he was just helping his former students advance their careers.

He couldn’t appreciate that by declining to publish this substandard work, I was protecting his reputation as well as mine. But because authorship entails responsibility for the work, he was putting his name on bad research. Was that really how he wanted people to remember him?