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Understanding Co-authorship and managing it successfully

The last few decades have seen a shift in authorship patterns, from more of single-author papers to more of multi-author papers. Evidence-based research often requires larger data sets, frequently contributed by multiple research teams. The multi-authored paper now represents the norm, especially in STEM publishing. With more authors, however, certain questions arise that need to be tackled. In this article, we discuss the various intricacies involved in co-authorship.

Need for co-authorship

These days, research projects increasingly involve the accumulation of larger datasets, complex study design, statistical analysis and extensive coordination among numerous research centres. The greater the scope, complexity and multidisciplinary collaboration and involvement of a study, the greater the need for multiple co-authors. With numerous colleagues from diverse fields contributing to a study, research papers are able to put forth stronger conclusions and tend to be produced more efficiently. Ideas are shared among multiple fields, and the scientific process benefits as a whole.

Dimensions of co-authorship

However, the ‘full flavour’ of co-authorship is more than merely indicating two or more people as authors on a paper. Authorship, or co-authorship, indicates many things:

  • It shows who exerted substantial effort in the design, execution of research, analysis of the data and writing of the paper.
  • It denotes ownership and responsibility for the content of the paper.
  • In rare circumstances, (co-)authorship can implicate specific individuals if their research is determined to be spurious or inaccurate.

Deciding co-authorship

To determine precisely who should be listed as a co-author, what constitutes authorship and the order of authors, proceed as follows.

  • Consult the Information for Authors (IFA) page of the journal to which you wish to submit your paper.
    • The IFA will also indicate how many authors can be included for a given type of manuscript.
    • Contributors who don’t meet the threshold for authorship can be listed in the Acknowledgements section.
  • Consult with your department chair to determine their advice on order of author placement. 

Determining the order of authors

Co-authorship has some traditional conventions.

  • Papers arising from Pacific Rim centres (or the Global East) often place the senior author at the front, with successively junior authors (who often put in the most effort on the papers) afterwards.
  • In the case of studies from the United States (or more broadly, the Global West), the ‘main’ or ‘lead’ author is usually listed first, with the senior authors listed last.

Note: These conventions are constantly changing, and at the time of writing, there is no standard global guideline for listing the order of authors.

Best practices for managing co-authorship during submission and revision

  • Before the paper is submitted to a journal, make sure all authors (and acknowledged contributors) are in agreement with the order of authors.
  • Be sure to give credit to all appropriate study contributors by crediting them as authors or listing them in the Acknowledgments section. Be sure not to leave any significant contributors off the author (or acknowledgment) list, as adding authors after submission becomes a very difficult challenge.
  • If at all possible, do not change the number or order of authors after initial submission. Do not add more authors or change the order of authors during the revision stage unless they are needed to conduct further experiments which require additional researchers.
  • If you do feel the need to add authors, clearly indicate the addition and rationale to the editorial office when you resubmit the paper. Don’t give any appearance of trying to ‘sneak in’ a new author or two!
  • Be very careful when using ghost authors to write your paper. Again, consult your journal’s IFA or contact their editorial office to determine correct protocols. (Having your paper edited by a professional copy-editor or editing service, however, is an acceptable practice.)

Follow these guidelines, and you will be celebrating with your entire author and research team when your paper is accepted and published!


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