Last week, we explored ways to improve your manuscript’s acceptance rate by examining the factors editors consider when making their decisions. We also looked at how to choose the right journal, examining aspects such as a journal’s scope and the peer review process. This week, we will discuss practical issues about manuscripts before we launch into identifying the best practices for writing a successful journal submission.
When we write an article, one of the first questions, we should be asking ourselves is “Who are the authors?” The answer to this query might seem obvious at first, but the more we reflect upon the matter, the more complicated it becomes. Claiming authorship declares to the world that the ascribed names conducted the research discussed in an article. The order of the author names is also an important indication of who did the work and so on. Accordingly, if we incorrectly name people as authors, serious unintended consequences could result. Let’s take a closer look at why authorship determination is important.
What is authorship?
In the literary world, an author is someone who creates a written work. In the academic research world, however, an author is much more. Indeed, many journals follow the recommendations promoted by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). To obtain authorship credit, a person must partake in ALL of the following four phases of research publication:
- substantial contribution to research design, data collection and analysis;
- drafting or revising any important intellectual content;
- final review and approval before article submission; AND
- agreement to be accountable “for all aspects of the work” necessary to ensure that “questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.”
Manuscripts authored by a large group would need to list not only the name of involved organizations but also the members who satisfy the four authorship criteria listed above.
Who should be acknowledged as a contributor?
If someone does not meet all four criteria to be named as an author, the ICMJE recommends acknowledgment credit instead of authorship. This distinction between authorship and acknowledgment exists to identify those who should be held fully responsible to the public for the research being introduced. People who have only engaged in a small segment of the research, therefore, should not be held to this standard. While their contributions might have been essential (e.g., a financial sponsor or lab technician), these contributors are not as intimately acquainted with the research as those who should be called “authors.”
When deciding how to acknowledge contributors, more specificity might mitigate any negative feelings someone might have about not receiving authorship status. For example, the ICMJE suggests descriptions like:
- “participating investigator,”
- “served as scientific advisor,”
- “provided study patients” and
- “participated in the writing or technical editing of the manuscript.”
Why does authorship matter?
As stated above, the purpose of authorship guidelines is to hold named authors accountable to the public for their research. The academic community functions because we trust each other. If we cannot confidently rely on each other’s word, then our pursuit of knowledge comes to a grinding halt. If a person can lie about who conducted and later interpreted a specific set of data, how can we believe the data or the published results? Consequently, assigning proper authorship is crucial to maintaining faith in our efforts to promote academic collaboration and shared knowledge.
Credibility is not the only issue with wrongful attribution. Where a submitted paper requires additional scrutiny, the public needs access to those who are in a position to provide answers. Research, by its nature, is about investigation — challenging current knowledge and testing its sturdiness. If we are unable to communicate with the right individuals to assess a study’s merits, then the academic work is useless to us. The purpose of peer review is to appreciate who the authors are, to understand how this new work adds to the previous body of knowledge and to point the way to future research opportunities.
Moreover, inappropriate authorship can lead to discord among team members. Consider the following situation: a group of people collectively develops a project, but only some of them are named as authors. The remaining contributors may feel slighted and lose interest in any further cooperation. In severe cases, this resentment can spiral into the concealment or careless manipulation of important findings. Years of work can be quickly destroyed because the parties involved failed to agree on who would be named author at a project’s onset.
Finally, we must remember that a journal’s editorial staff is not responsible for assigning authorship, and any disagreement about attribution after a paper has been submitted can decrease your chances of having the article, or future articles, accepted. From a publication editor’s perspective, its value is in its trustworthiness. A journal must be able to verify that the works it publishes have been thoroughly vetted and that the underlying research comes from sound provenance. If editors cannot make these statements confidently, then why would they take the risk?
TIP: If you approach a journal with solid research, but there is a clear dispute about who should claim authorship, you have lost credibility in the editorial staff’s eyes. This problem can be avoided, however, if you reach an agreement among potential co-authors before the manuscript is drafted.
Now that we have a better understanding of the risks of improper authorship designation, in our next two posts, we will examine best practices for avoiding these risks and how to double check and spot authorship issues before submission.