Some thoughts on authorship credit and power

I’ve been thinking recently about how authorship credit is assigned on academic papers. A few general thoughts first:
  1. Authorship customs vary a lot between communities. I started in mathematics (and still have one foot there) where boundaries of collaboration have traditionally been porous, sharing of credit generous, and authors listed in alphabetical order. I now often collaborate with people in biology, medicine, and statistical genomics, who are more hard-edged and concerned to quantify and rank individual contributions, especially (but not exclusively) through author order.
  2. Given the existential importance of authorship credit — particularly for young academics, where the time pressure is enormous, or for individuals at low-research-intensity institutions, where a single publication in an adequate journal can make the difference between promotion and job-loss — and the low unit cost of “manufacturing” more authorship places, economists would predict that the system should be entirely corrupt. In fact, there is a certain amount of abuse — widespread, but concentrated in certain countries — with influential people pressuring their underlings to include them as authors on all publications, regardless of whether the boss has contributed in any meaningful way to the research (other than administratively, or by procuring an overarching grant to fund the project). But there does not seem to be a substantial market in people selling authorship on their papers.
  3. Where there are laboratories, or influence of “lab culture”, there tends to be a hierarchical system, where a major source of control is the ability of the group leader to reward and punish with authorship credit. I am very far from being plugged in to the networks of early career researchers in these fields, but I have seen numerous examples of this power being abused. More than that, there is a certain fatalism, where doctoral students and postdocs simply accept the discretion of their research group leaders to decide that their substantial contributions to a given research project have been inadequate, and so to “take them off” a paper they have been contributing to for years.
    (I myself once had a situation where a senior researcher — at another institution, not in any sense my employer, but the person who initiated the project that brought together people from multiple institutions — responded to disagreements about the statistical analysis and how to describe it by contending, after I had been working on the project for nearly a decade, shortly before the paper was to be submitted, that I had not contributed constructively, and threatening to remove my name from the paper.)

There has been quite a lot of discussion of the ethics of publication and authorship in recent years, and I had a look at some of the guidelines that have been published. I was astonished to discover that they are almost exclusively directed at abuses that undermine the reliability and reputation of the research, and not at all at protecting the careers and reputations of (less powerful) researchers. Their focus is primarily the abuse I described as point 2 above, secondarily hidden conflicts of interest, whereas the abuse in point 3 is barely mentioned, and even less discouraged.

The research integrity guidelines of my university (and the sources they draw upon) are wholly inadequate:

Generally, an author is considered to be someone who has made substantive intellectual contributions to a published study. This includes anyone who:
• made a substantial contribution to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis or interpretation of data for the work; and 
• drafted or substantively reviewed or revised the publication; and
• approved the final version of the publication; and
• agreed to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work could be appropriately investigated and resolved.
This is clearly designed to say when people should not receive authorship credit, and to provide some defence against abuse of power in people claiming they ought to be authors when they haven’t been sufficiently involved in the work. One almost has the impression that they want to allow the maximum latitude to group leaders to make these decisions, so as not to vitiate this mechanism of control. The university guidelines seem to have been copied without attribution from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. They do not explicitly cite the important qualification that follows:
The criteria are not intended for use as a means to disqualify colleagues from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them the opportunity to meet criterion #s 2 or 3. Therefore, all individuals who meet the first criterion should have the opportunity to participate in the review, drafting, and final approval of the manuscript.
Instead, the Oxford University research integrity statement on authorship requires hazily that researchers
  • report the work fairly according to each author’s contribution, and neither omit, underplay nor overplay a contributor’s input;
  • comply with the definition of author and co-author given by the publication or by international organisations (eg International Committee of Medical Journal Editors);
  • provide a formal offer of authorship (which should be accepted or declined in writing) to those meeting the agreed definitions.
 The principles formulated by the Council of Science Editors state (among other things)

Identification of authors and other contributors is the responsibility of the people who did the work (the researchers) not the people who publish the work (editors, publishers). Researchers should determine which individuals have contributed sufficiently to the work to warrant identification as an author.

They don’t say which researchers should make this identification, so obviously there is an unstated power structure. It does say “All individuals who qualify for authorship or acknowledgment should be identified,” but, again, no expression of principles of what would qualify someone. Instead which contributions ought not to be considered sufficient for authorship are most unhelpful for this kind of situation:

Other contributions that alone do not justify authorship include: assisting the research by providing advice, providing research space, departmental oversight, obtaining financial support, isolated analyses, or providing reagents/patients/animals/other study materials.

Anyway, I was thinking that this seems to be a widespread form of abuse, and much more oppressive to the academic proletariat than powerful people putting an extra name on the publication. It would be good if someone in a position of power would formulate standards. For instance, I have some rules of thumb with regard to collaboration and authorship:
  1. Asking a few questions is free, part of teaching. If someone comes for technical advice I’ll answer as well as I can, without expecting any further connection. If they want continuing advice, or for me to do some further work on the project, I’ll explicitly say this requires that I be included as a collaborator, and then I will contribute fully. (This has rarely happened.)
  2. Someone who participates in repeated discussions specifically about a project of mine is a co-author if that project turns into a publication, regardless of whether I think there is a definable contribution that they have made. Or, rather, a prospective co-author, as they must want to be associated with the publication, and be willing to contribute to all the late stages of writing and editing.
  3. My fundamental rule is: A (prospective) co-author is anyone whose contributions have made the paper in some significant way better than it would otherwise have been. The qualifying contribution may be minimal in terms of time. But, as mentioned above, contributing time is, in my opinion, automatically qualifying.
  4. Once someone has crossed the threshold to be a collaborator on a project, their name has to be on the ensuing publication, even if their later contributions have turned out to be minimal or disappointing. The transition to the next paper is the time to rejig the membership.
Someone should formulate an official set of principles like this. Not, of course, that I am so naive as to think that having rules automatically means that people will follow them. But the rules do serve as useful guidelines for those senior people who care about being reasonable, they alert junior people to rights that they may wish to assert, and in case of dispute it can be helpful to be able to appeal to some specific formulation, rather than to a general principle like “report the work fairly according to each author’s contribution”.