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10. The right to authorship

10. The right to authorship

Publishing is the ultimate way of presenting the results of original scientific endeavours and discoveries to the outside world and thus contribute to the body of knowledge. Authorship is a researcher's main instrument to gain credit for scientific work, and it represents a benchmark for scientific status, sometimes with far-reaching personal implications.

This chapter is based on the uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals drawn up by the International Committee of Medical Journals Editors ( ICMJE ). The AMC and the VUmc endorse these requirements. All persons designated as authors should fulfil the requirements for authorship, and all persons who fulfil the requirements for authorship should be offered authorship. Each author must have participated sufficiently in the project to be able to take responsibility for the content of the entire article. The term 'authorship' refers both to sole and first authorship, and to co-authorship.

10.1 Authorship

An 'author' is generally considered someone who has made substantive intellectual contributions to a published study, and authorship continues to have important academic, social and financial implications. An author must take responsibility for at least one component of the work, should be able to identify who is responsible for the other components, and should have no reason to doubt his/her co-authors' ability and integrity. Some journals request and publish information about the contributions of each person named as having participated in a submitted study, at least for original research. Editors are now strongly encouraged to develop and implement a policy on identifying who is responsible for the integrity of the work as a whole.

While contributorship and guarantorship policies obviously remove much of the ambiguity surrounding contributions, they leave unresolved the question of the quantity and quality of contribution that qualify the researcher for authorship. The right to authorship is based on whether each of the following three points applies:

  1. Substantial contribution to at least one of the following:
    - conception and design
    - data acquisition
    - analysis and interpretation of data.
  2. Drafting the manuscript or critically reviewing it.
  3. Final approval of the version to be published.

Group authorship: when a large, multicentre group has conducted or contributed to the work, the group should identify those individuals who accept direct responsibility for the manuscript. These individuals should fully meet the criteria for authorship defined above. When submitting a manuscript authored by a group, the corresponding author (the author to whom correspondence relating to the manuscript should be directed) should clearly indicate the preferred author citation and identify all individual authors, as well as the group name. Journals generally list other members of the group in the acknowledgments or as collaborators.

It follows from the foregoing that:

  • Acquisition of funding, collection of data or general supervision of the research group alone does not justify authorship.
  • All persons designated as authors should qualify for authorship, and all those who qualify should be offered authorship.
  • Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content.
  • Intentionally and unjustifiably presenting oneself as author or co-author (guest or honorary authorship), or omitting qualified researchers (ghost authorship), qualifies as scientific misconduct (see also Chapter 14)

Types of authorship
With respect to specific positions on the author list, there are interdisciplinary differences in the significance of the various positions. For the biomedical field, as well as several other fields, the following general guidance applies:

  • First author: it is customary for the researcher who did the majority of the work and prepared the first version of the manuscript to be listed as the first author. If the first and second authors contributed equally, this should be mentioned in a footnote ('these authors contributed equally to this study'). The published order of authors should not be changed under any circumstances, not even for internal documents. In rare cases, a similar construction is used for last authors ('joint last authorship').
  • Last author: the researcher who is most broadly involved in the successive components of the project (conception and design, data acquisition, and analysis and interpretation), and who has taken on most responsibilities with respect to supervision of the first author(s), is usually appointed as the last author. In other words, the last author is usually the person with the strongest role in the overall scientific conception and interpretation and organizational supervision of the project and the project members' scientific performance. This role is project related and not determined by 'seniority' or 'departmental hierarchy'.
  • Corresponding author: the first author is usually also the corresponding author. There might, however, be good reasons to decide differently, for example if the first author will be leaving the group soon after publication.
  • Other authors: the remaining authors are listed in order of contribution. In some cases, however, the order is based on other principles (e.g. it might be alphabetical or balancing authors from different contributing disciplines). The order in which the authors are listed should be a joint decision, in which the last author lists the final order after consulting all authors (see below). If there is disagreement with this decision, the last author decides after consulting the person who is formally in charge of the research line, or the head of the department.
  • Guarantors: some journals now also request that one or more authors, referred to as guarantors, be identified as the persons who take responsibility for the integrity of the work as a whole, from inception to published article, and publish that information. If guarantors are mentioned, this has no consequences for the aforementioned requirements applying to other authors.

There are advantages in drawing up an agreement during the initial phase of the project that states how the list of authors is to be decided, and how changes are to be made once the actual contributions made by the co-authors are known. In practice, things may turn out differently from what was anticipated, so it is prudent to start out by designating a supervising researcher (principal investigator, usually the anticipated last author) involved in the project as responsible for deciding on any problems concerning authorship.

Contributors listed in the acknowledgments or as collaborators
Contributors who do not meet the criteria for authorship should be listed in an acknowledgments section. Examples of those who might be acknowledged include a person who provided purely technical help or writing assistance, or a department chairperson who provided only general support. The corresponding author has to declare whether contributors had assistance with study design, data collection, data analysis and/or manuscript preparation. If such assistance was provided, the authors should disclose the identity of the individuals who provided this assistance and the entity that supported it in the published article. Financial and material support should also be acknowledged.

Groups of persons who have contributed materially to the paper but whose contributions do not justify authorship may be listed under such headings as 'collaborators', 'clinical investigators' or 'participating investigators'. Since their names are also displayed in, for example, PubMed, their function or contribution should be described (e.g. 'served as scientific advisors,' 'critically reviewed the study proposal,' 'collected data' or 'provided and cared for study patients'). As a reader could infer that they concur with the results and conclusions, all these people need to give written consent to being mentioned in the acknowledgements. It follows that along with the right to be mentioned goes a duty to accept mention, as is the case with authorship.

Financial and other substantial material support for the project should always be mentioned in the acknowledgements. In the case of experiments that involve humans, this is laid down in the Medical Research Involving Human Subjects Act ( Wet Medisch-wetenschappelijk Onderzoek met mensen; WMO ). This obligation also applies to the sponsorship of journal supplements that contain original or review articles. This prevents potential conflicts of interest (which do not occur when publishing in regular peer-reviewed issues of periodicals) being obscured. Sponsors and parties with whom sponsorship has been agreed (authors, editors of periodicals and others) have a mutual responsibility to mention this.

10.2 Professional considerations when preparing for publication

Manuscripts should be prepared for publication by the research team in complete openness and in accordance with the agreements made. However, rules such as outlined above cannot be written in stone. The system has flexibilities, as it should. In some cases, for example, first and last authorships may be shared (e.g. if two junior researchers performed most of the work together, or if one supervisor wrote the protocol and the other did much of the supervision).
Members of the group must not prepare separate publications without the prior consent of the other members. Any proposal to use the results of a project for special publications (e.g. theses) not envisaged at the start of the project should be put to the research team as a whole. Here again it is prudent to start out by designating a senior researcher to be responsible for deciding on any conflicts.