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How many authors? Charlesworth Knowledge can help to ensure your work is compliant with ethical publishing guidelines


Journal guidelines on authorship are usually quite clear: individuals named on papers should have made a significant contribution to the study, perhaps collecting and analysing data, writing the text, or overseeing and supervising the research. There has to be a close involvement with the study: I used to tell PhD students that if you are not comfortable talking about the research presented in a paper with a colleague, or at a conference, then you probably should not be named as an author. You have to have a detailed knowledge of the contents of a paper you are an author on; of course, you will have if you’ve actually contributed to the study. Don’t fall into the trap of being a ‘sleeping co-author’.


I’ve recently had to deal with an issue of authorship with the journal that I oversee as a managing editor. We received a paper which listed 14 authors, 10 of them from the same research institute. This raised some red flags, not least because the paper itself was quite short, just 3,000 words or so.


Our journal policy requires a submitting author to tick some boxes online when making a submission, stating that ‘all authors listed on the paper are aware of the work’ and ‘have contributed to the study’. To do otherwise would constitute a breach of ethical guidelines; nevertheless, in this case, we did feel it was necessary to write to the corresponding author  of this submitted paper to check that 14 people really did contribute to the study.


I’m a fan of the systems implemented at many journals these days, but not all, wherein papers actually contain an ‘author contribution’ section at the end. This makes it clear to both submitting authors, editors, and readers who did what: which of the authors wrote the study, who performed the analyses, who provided the chemicals or samples, and who secured the funding for the work. It’s critical to check journal guidelines carefully before submitting your work as mistakes in this area can be hard to fix later and might have a damaging effect on your reputation.


Changes to authorship once papers have entered a journal submission system are hard to make; adding or removing someone will usually require a signed statement from all co-authors noting that they are aware of, and approve, this change. I’ve dealt with this situation in the past from both directions; in one case, a PhD student submitting a paper had simply forgotten to list one of his contributing supervisors, necessitating lots of paperwork once the paper had been accepted. The missing supervisor was out of the country so there was even a delay to publication.


In another case I dealt with recently some authors of a study actually had a falling out, and so one refused to sign off on a paper already in our system. It happens!


Writing and submitting papers is just part of the publishing story. There’s lots of issues and potential pitfalls to be aware of. Our Charlesworth Knowledge training courses and online materials can help you to ensure your submissions are compliant with journal publishing and ethical guidelines. The Charlesworth Group is a member of the Committee on Publishing Ethics (COPE).