As a researcher or an academic, where would you like your name to appear in a research paper? In the list of authors of the paper (right up front) or in its acknowledgements section (almost towards the end)? In many ways, the two positions are a world apart, and the matter is one of the most contentious ones in academic publishing. This article will help you understand the difference between authorship and contribution and tackle such issues. Before that, though, let’s consider the importance attached to authorship and the order of authors in academia.


Importance of authorship and order of authors

Being a named author of a research paper is important in the academic world, because when it comes to promotion, tenure, funding or even a raise, the bottom line is a researcher’s published output: the number of papers to your name. Also, it is not merely the name but its position in the list of authors of a paper.

·         Most of the credit goes to the first author.

·         The second author gets their share (which is less than that of the first author).

·         The third author gets even less credit, and so on down the line.

Note: In some domains, the last-named author is considered important, mainly because of their position, for example, head of the department or director of the laboratory.


Defining an author for a research paper

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors stipulates four criteria, all four of which should be satisfied to be a named author of a paper. The criteria are:

·         Making substantial contributions to the research reported in the paper (and)

·         Writing the paper or revising it critically (and)

·         Approving the version to be published (and)

·         Agreeing to be accountable for all aspects of the work


However, not all journals even in the field of medicine abide by these criteria. One researcher may be an expert in field work; another, in laboratory work; and yet another, in statistics and data analysis. It is unrealistic to expect each of them to be accountable for all aspects of the study. This brings us to the difference between being an author of a paper and being a contributor to a study (and acknowledged as such).


Defining a contributor for a research paper

Contributors can be thought of as those without whose help a given piece of research could not have been completed but who were not part of the research team. The contributors were specialists who made available their expertise but in a detached manner. For example

Consider physicians treating their patients. The physician may call for laboratory tests, seek advice from a dietitian and even consult a specialist. However, the final responsibility for the treatment rests with the physician and not with the laboratory technician, the dietitian or the consultant.


Author vs. Contributor in a research paper

The difference between authors and contributors is that members of a research team get to be the authors, because they:

      Conceptualise the objectives of research or formulate a hypothesis

      Choose the appropriate approach(es) and method(s) of meeting those objectives or testing that hypothesis

      Make any mid-term changes or corrections to the proposed course of research

      Interpret and explain the findings (although the data may have been analysed by a statistician)

      Write up the paper or participate in writing or commenting on the draft and in choosing the most suitable journal for the paper.



To sum up, what distinguishes authors from contributors is intellectual involvement in the work as a whole – beyond their area of specialisation – as against piecemeal service as detached experts.

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