Who gets the CRediT? Authorship issues and fairness in academic writing

One of the trickiest and most controversial aspects of academic publishing is deciding ‘who did what’ during research article writing. What does it mean to be listed as ‘an author’ on an academic paper? This aspect of academic publishing is one of the most open to abuse; most people are unaware of what ‘being an author’ actually means. The clue here is in the wording: to sign your name on a paper, to ‘be an author’, it’s necessary to have actually contributed to the creative writing process. Charlesworth is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE): according to current guidelines you need to have added significant intellectual input during the process of actually putting the paper together. Not just winning the funding, or running the research group, or even performing the analyses. If you have any questions, please get in touch or simply click here.


Strictly speaking, if you look at article publishing guidelines (like those of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, for example, or those for individual academic journals), you’ll find a pretty standard definition for what constitutes authorship on an academic paper: ‘to qualify for authorship, a researcher must have been involved in drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content’. This is quite different to what a lot of people think and, indeed, how they tend to behave: it’s not enough to just be involved in data collection, analysis, or funding to warrant article authorship. Human nature though is to work based on incentives: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. It’s no different in academic publishing.


Do researchers actually follow journal authorship guidelines? Almost never, I’d argue. Indeed, flick through the pages of any academic journal: papers with multiple authors signed on them are norm. Did all these people actually contribute to the content writing? Again, almost never. Authorship, as currently defined by most journals, needs to be re-defined and we need to get real when it comes to publishing: deal-making around authorship is very, very common amongst academics, especially in fields were research is dependent on ‘access’, perhaps to field sites or samples. ‘If you give me access to this particular thing, then you’ll be listed as an author’. Is it sensible to limit ‘intellectual contributions’ to just the writing process? Many have argued, including in the most recent issue of Nature, that current authorship conventions enforced (or at least attempted to be enforced) by journals actually weaken the scientific enterprise. The current system is particular rough on early career researchers (ECRs) who very often do make very significant contributions to academic work (think: who does the data collection?) but then get buried within long lists of co-authors.


It’s becoming ever more clear that this situation has arisen because of a deep disconnect between the publishing industry and academia. Simply put: journal publishers just don’t understand how the research process works. Academic publishers (= journals) have tried hard to police ‘authorship abuse’ by introducing formatting requirements and systems during the writing and submission process that require people to state “their specific contributions” to an article. These systems are deeply ineffective; if I wanted to publish a paper with six co-authors, all of whom did very little during the creative writing process, I would just list them as having “contributed to the paper writing process” in a journal’s online system. No-one is going to check.


A much better solution to the ever-growing problem of 'trophy authorship' is a system like CRediT which was created to allow quantification of research article contributions. Think about it: you are listed as an author alongside five or six other colleagues yet you were the one who designed and performed a complex statistical analysis or created a new piece of software. It’s critically important to your career that another colleague reading your co-authored article is able to identify exactly what you were responsible for: who will they want to collaborate with in the future? What if another research group is looking for a statistician, data modeller, or someone with particular skills to join their team? How can you get appropriate credit for the innovative work you have done?


The CRediT system can work well, especially for ECRs looking to build a research reputation: More than two dozen journal publishers, including Cell Press, the Public Library of Science, and Oxford University Press, are implementing this system for at least some of their titles. We recommend you use services like this, in combination with other systems like an ORCID iD that ensure that you it’s easy to tie you back to research projects you’ve completed. Recruiters looking to fill positions like statisticians and programmers (for example) will have access to more accurate information. Grant applicants will be able to show funders that they have the write skills. One important aspect of career success is simply maximum visibility within your field.


‘A lot of good can come of making it easier to show who did what’


If you have questions about academic writing, authorship, or contributions to papers then Charlesworth can help. Our training courses (which can be booked via institutions), online materials, and blog articles contain numerous tips and tricks to help you navigate the academic publishing journey and maximise your potential as a researcher. Our world-class English language editing services are designed to support your wider research and writing; why not get your work edited and pre-reviewed by one of our PhD-level specialists working on the same research field as you? Or avail of our grant writing and pre-peer review services? Find out more at www.cwauthors.com.

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