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Legitimate authorship and contribution in scientific publishing

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Legitimate authorship and contribution in scientific publishing

Determining authorship can be one of the most vexing tasks in scientific publishing. In the first article of this two-part series, we looked at certain issues of problematic authorship, such as ghost authorship, guest authorship and gift authorship. In this second and concluding article in the series, we look at what constitutes legitimate authorship, including acknowledging the contribution by professional medical writers and editors. But first, let’s look at why it’s important to determine and acknowledge authorship.

Function and purpose of authorship

Authorship in scientific publishing serves a two-fold purpose: ownership and responsibility. On the one hand, it indicates who should take credit for ideas and work that have contributed to furthering knowledge in the field. On the other, authorship also indicates who is responsible for ideas and experiments and can be used to hold people accountable if something is disproven or shown false. It serves as an article’s first public statement of the author’s trustworthiness.

What constitutes ‘legitimate’ authorship

Journals and publishing houses increasingly have detailed policies on what constitutes authorship and who can be listed as an author in their publication, as found in their Information for Authors (IFA).

A rule of thumb for determining legitimate authorship can be stated as follows: 

Everyone who made ‘substantial intellectual contributions to the study on which the article is based’ should be an author.

Let’s examine the implications of this.

  • Substantial contributions can include conception, design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data. 
  • Drafting of the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content also qualifies as a basis for legitimate authorship.
  • So does final approval (and subsequent responsibility) for the final version of a paper (particularly for large, multi-centre studies).

Legitimate authorship by industry bodies

Many publications are adopting authorship criteria as evangelised by the following industry bodies:

  • International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE)
  • Council of Science Editors (CSE)
  • Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)

Why correct authorship attribution is important: copyright and responsibility

Traditional, subscription-based journals require authors to sign over copyright of the articles they publish. The journal assumes responsibility to conduct peer review, determine acceptability and publish the paper. Journals therefore necessarily depend on the truthfulness of authors and their peer review panels to respectively write and review manuscripts honestly and ethically. Journals are not able to engage in thorough investigations into the truthfulness of authors (and reviewers). This ethical mandate is one primary reason why truthfulness in authorship is required.

A second important reason involved with accurate authorship lies in the legal nature of the transfer of copyright. Copyright transfer requires authors to sign documents, stating they are indeed the authors of their manuscripts and are solely responsible for the content. If authors are not the ones responsible for the content but sign statements saying they are, they are falsifying legal documents

Journal requirements regarding authorship

Over the last decade, therefore, many journals have started requiring all authors listed on a submission to state their role in the generation of the paper. Furthermore, any changes to the authorship after the initial submission must be accompanied by a sufficient and compelling explanation to the editor. 

Role and acknowledgment of professional scientific and medical writers

A related question that arises is that of the role and acknowledgment of professional scientific and medical writers. These are professional scientists, researchers and writers who legitimately help researchers write their papers. Most scientific journals will recognise and honour the role these professional writers play in the overall process. The same goes for academic editing service providers.

On the manuscripts in which they contributed substantially as writers or editors, professional writers should be formally acknowledged (with their permission). Equally important, these professional writers should disclose any relevant financial involvement or professional relationships. The online resource AMWA-EMWA-ISMPP joint position statement on the role of professional medical writers offers helpful guidance on identifying and acknowledging professional writers for medical research papers.


By following increasingly accepted criteria for authorship, authors will be able to appropriately attribute credit and responsibility for the content of their papers. 


Read previous (first) in series: Issues of problematic authorship in scientific publishing


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