Young scientists often struggle with the problem that they are obliged to include authors in the author list who may not have contributed substantially – or not all. Especially partners who only provide technology, patient samples, genetically modified organisms or general infrastructure may be a reason for debate, although without their contribution, the research would be impossible. How can you handle this problem?

The ethicist gives unpopular advice

When asking an ethicist the answer is often very clear – colleagues who only contributed to the project by providing technology, patient samples, genetically modified organisms or general infrastructure should not be an author, they should be mentioned and thanked in the acknowledgement. In response to this conservative idea, the standard reaction of young scientists normally lacks enthusiasm.  🙂 Classical replies are: “Great! Do you really think I will inform the dean of our faculty that he will not be on my paper anymore…? I do not want problems.” “If I do not include colleague X he will not provide the patient samples I desperately need for my research… This means that I will not get my thesis done…”.

Be pragmatic?

In other words, young scientists are often in a dilemma and the advice of the ethicist makes it worse. In contrast, supervisors have the tendency to advise a PhD student to be ‘pragmatic’. This means:  to ignore the ethical dilemma, to add the colleagues to the author’s list and to channel their creativity in composing a convincing “description of each author’s contribution” which are nowadays requested by many journals, particularly biomedical ones. In the end the PhD students stop thinking about this ethical dilemma and continue the ‘pragmatic approach’ in their next job.

However, is there a better way?

Which rules should I follow?

There are very clear guidelines to help you decide whether a person should be in the author list of your publication. For example, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) has provided a set of guidelines meant to help researchers decide whether a contributor qualifies to be an author or should rather be included in the acknowledgements section of a manuscript.
“The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

  1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  3. Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  4. Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.”

“All those designated as authors should meet all four criteria for authorship, and all who meet the four criteria should be identified as authors.”

Accepting the final version and accountability

The third and fourth point are normally not a problem. Every author will approve the final version – even without reading the paper. Every author will also agree to be accountable – although many authors are not fully aware of the consequences this responsibility implies in cases of scientific fraud. According to these criteria, all authors are held accountable, even when they had no idea about fraudulent activities of other co-authors. Our ethicist Wim Pinxten kindly explained: “Accountability, however, does not equal guilt. It is up to potential investigations about scientific misconduct to clarify whether authors have acted responsibly and in good faith, or whether they have been negligent or guilty to the conduct of improper scientific practice’.” Read more here: What to do when you are falsely accused of scientific fraud? However, most authors will approve the final version and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work without further consideration.

What is the problem?

The problems start with the following statement of the ICMJE guidelines: “Contributors who meet fewer than all 4 of the above criteria for authorship should not be listed as authors, but they should be acknowledged.” Thus, those authors who do not meet all four criteria should be moved to the acknowledgements. Why is this a problem?

Acknowledgements have no value in science – authorship does. Read more here: What is the best publication strategy in science? and How to become a professor? This means that the following persons do *not* qualify:

  • contributors who only provide technical help, lab space, reagents – even when the study would not be possible without their contribution.
  • contributors who only rewrite the paper and improve the discussion – even when this contribution is substantial (time, energy, background knowledge, etc.).

What does it mean to be an author?

Noémie Aubert Bonn, a young ethicist in our Department, pointed out that my view of authorships as an “investment in your career” is a rather limited perspective.  She pointed out to me that having an author’s name, correspondence, and affiliation on a paper may have other motives than just career advancement that are genuinely useful and that should not be forgotten. For example, indicating the corresponding author gives the reader the possibility to know who to contact in case of questions; author names permit researchers to guide their searches and to orient their readings, and journalists to contact people for interviews, and affiliations help students and young researchers to find institutes that do research they find interesting, etc. Finally,  beyond the fame, the recognition, and the advantages of being an author, there is also a duty to understand, critically appraise, and be able to explain and justify the study, its methods, and its conclusions. I have to agree (because I always agree when an ethicists criticizes my limited perspective).

What are “fake authors” anyway?

In the context of this blog post anyone who has not contributed “substantially” to a study is considered a fake author – however, the definition of a “substantial contribution” is vague. Many scientists argue that there is a big difference between authors who have been included in the authors list because they are simply higher in the hierarchy (head of department, dean, rector, etc.) and colleagues who provide direct support such as patient samples or access to a high-class technology – although neither may have read the paper. The head of department or dean may argue that he/she provides the infrastructure which makes the research possible. Thus, there are several layers of fake authors:

  • People who have not contributed at all (for example friends or important political partners of the senior author) – these are without doubt fake authors
  • People higher in the hierarchy who provide infrastructure in general – here starts the debate, some people would agree that this contribution is insufficient but in multiple  countries it is still a common practice.
  • People who provide concrete technical input (patient’s samples, animal models, technologies, etc.) – very difficult debate, many people would consider such a contribution worthy of co-authorship although it does not conform with the ICMJE authorship recommendations.

Lying or opening the debate about the rules?

Because many scientists cannot perform their research without colleagues who provide this kind of support, many of them simply lie when composing the contribution of those authors who provide technical input. It is therefore important to debate whether these author criteria are still valid when the practice in the real world of research fails to respect them. However, until this is resolved, scientists have to live with these guidelines on the one hand and with the essential contribution of colleagues who do not qualify for all four criteria on the other. … but how can you behave ethically without destroying your scientific career?     

Solution: Let them contribute intellectually

In order to solve this problem, we advise our PhD students to ask those authors who do not fully qualify for the first or the second point to make a ‘substantial intellectual contribution’ to the work. The key word is ‘substantial’. It is not clearly defined what a ‘substantial contribution’ is, and young scientists should be guided by their supervisors to define when a minimal contribution can be considered “substantial”. Unfortunately, there are no clear criteria and every author has to make this decision himself/herself. On the other hand, this gives a lot of freedom. A small but substantial intellectual contribution in addition to the technical contribution may sufficiently qualify the co-author(s) in question. A pragmatic advice is to ask the contributors 1. to help a bit with the interpretation of the data and 2. to critically revise the final version. In most cases I am aware of, the potential co-authors are interested enough to provide this kind of input and qualify sufficiently because they need the co-authorships for some kind of scientific career. Several ethicists I have asked agreed that this strategy is an acceptable way to transform a ‘fake’ author (according to the 4 criteria) into a qualified author. Of course, this does not work with real fake authors who want the ‘fame’ without any contribution.

Acknowledgements: Thanks a lot to Noémie Aubert Bonn for critical comments on the first version and Wim Pinxten who helped me to understand the difference  between “accountability” and “guilt” of co-authors in case of scientific fraud.