Research Article: Intellectual contributions meriting authorship: Survey results from the top cited authors across all science categories

Date Published: January 16, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Gregory S. Patience, Federico Galli, Paul A. Patience, Daria C. Boffito, Cassidy Rose Sugimoto.


Authorship is the currency of an academic career for which the number of papers researchers publish demonstrates creativity, productivity, and impact. To discourage coercive authorship practices and inflated publication records, journals require authors to affirm and detail their intellectual contributions but this strategy has been unsuccessful as authorship lists continue to grow. Here, we surveyed close to 6000 of the top cited authors in all science categories with a list of 25 research activities that we adapted from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) authorship guidelines. Responses varied widely from individuals in the same discipline, same level of experience, and same geographic region. Most researchers agreed with the NIH criteria and grant authorship to individuals who draft the manuscript, analyze and interpret data, and propose ideas. However, thousands of the researchers also value supervision and contributing comments to the manuscript, whereas the NIH recommends discounting these activities when attributing authorship. People value the minutiae of research beyond writing and data reduction: researchers in the humanities value it less than those in pure and applied sciences; individuals from Far East Asia and Middle East and Northern Africa value these activities more than anglophones and northern Europeans. While developing national and international collaborations, researchers must recognize differences in peoples values while assigning authorship.

Partial Text

The scientific process requires ingenuity and individuals that contribute creativity to answering the research question merit authorship [1, 2]. However authorship lists continue to climb [3, 4] despite the widespread dissemination of guidelines to dissuade ambiguous attribution [5, 6]: in 2013, articles averaged 5 to 10 authors while in 1993 there were only 2 to 3 [7]. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) and other organizations [8, 9] published a list of criteria for authorship requiring authors to: (1) design experiments, or analyse data, or interpret data; (2) draft or revise the manuscript; (3) approve the final manuscript; and, (4) agree to be held accountable for it [10, 11].

We expanded the NIH authorship activity list and taxonomy classes of Allen et al., (2014) [25] to include 25 research tasks and developed a questionnaire to gauge the practices of researchers across all scientific endeavors. NIH list was specific to health and excluded activities often relegated to acknowledgments: peer interactive communications—advice, discussion, critical comment, and inspiration—[26], and access to experimental data, specimens (and equipment), technical or statistical help, editorial assistance, data gathering/data entry, and financial or moral support [27]. Our expanded list includes 5 classes with 5 activities per class to be able to compare quantitatively how people value each class. Any of these activities represents a substantial investment in time (a week and more) but not for all articles nor for all individuals.

The email we sent encouraging researchers to participate described the survey thusly:

The five groups of questions resemble the classes of activities in journal contribution statements [29] with five activities per category. We corresponded with dozens of researchers to confirm that the questions targeted their perceived importance of each activity and not whether others or they themselves followed it in reality. We assigned a score ωk to each response:

Most CAs agreed to assign authorship to those that drafted the manuscript (s21 = 3.7), interpreted data (s20 = 3.6), and analyzed data (s19 = 3.3), which agrees with the ICMJE criteria (Fig 3). However, unlike the ICMJE, they attributed authorship to many other activities like proposing ideas (s4 = 2.8), consolidating data (s18 = 2.7), executing a DOE (s17 = 2.8), experimental design (s17 = 2.8), and responding to reviewers (s25 = 2.8). Execute (sample management) and design (including operation) were the least valued activity classes, but even so, thousands of people thought that activities in these classes always merited authorship.

For almost every category, opinions range between the two extremes (Fig 3): as many people think that they should rarely ever merit authorship as those that think is should almost always merit it. Describing the data statistically and comparing responses across fields, countries, and profession identifies trends but the large variance show how divergent opinions are. Even within the same discipline, same region, and same level of experience, responses extended from one extreme to the other. For all responses except responding to reviewer’s comments (Q25), p < 0.05 for a two-tailed t-test comparing pure and applied sciences versus philosophy, political science, and literature (Fig 5). The responses from scholars in the humanities and in philosophy were generally indistinguishable—p < 0.01 for questions 4, 5, 6, 13 16, and 24. The p-values for t-tests between the natural sciences and pure and applied sciences were greater than 0.05 for questions 2, 16, 19, 20 and 25. We sent the survey to the top corresponding authors indexed by WoS, which introduces a bias towards experienced senior researchers. These individuals have the authority to choose collaborators and decide who merits authorship. However, several hundred junior researchers did respond and many professors shared the survey with their students, thus we had some responses to gauge their opinions. Scientists and engineers publish to build a reputation that universities, companies, and governmental agencies examine to hire, promote, and fund. Research complexity continues to increase requiring larger multi-disciplinary teams. Consequently, authorship lists are growing, so journals require corresponding authors to disclose everyones contribution to ensure equitable recognition—authorship or acknowledgment. However, corresponding authors continue to include individuals with a modicum of intellectual involvement [38] and to exclude those with substantial intellectual contribution. Consider hyper-prolific authors that publish an article every five days: despite their evident devotion, hard work, extensive collaborations, and organizational capacity, publishing a paper every 5 days would seem an inconceivable endeavor. [39].   Source:


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