For better or for worse, authorship is a currency in scholarly research and advancement. In scholarly writing, authorship is widely acknowledged as a means of conferring credit but is also tied to concepts such as responsibility and accountability. Authorship is one of the most divisive topics both at the level of the research team and more broadly in the academy and beyond. At present, authorship is often the primary way to assert and receive credit in many scholarly pursuits and domains. Debates rage, publicly but mostly privately, regarding authorship. Here we attempt to clarify key concepts related to authorship informed by our collective experiences and anchored in relevant contemporary literature. Rather than dwelling on the problems, we focus on proactive strategies for creating more just, equitable, and transparent avenues for minimizing conflict around authorship and where there is adequate recognition of the entire process of knowledge generation, synthesis, sharing, and application with partners within and beyond the academy. We frame our ideas around 10 strategies that collectively constitute a roadmap for avoiding and overcoming challenges associated with authorship decisions.
For centuries, the scholarly periodical (herein called a “publication”) has served as the primary mechanism by which knowledge is shared and archived (McKie 1948; Kronick 1991). Such publications create a legacy and allow one to track developments of knowledge, ideas, and disciplines through time and use various peer-review models to (imperfectly; Henderson 2010) ensure that contributions meet disciplinary standards (Burnham 1990; Spier 2002). The scholarly publishing world has evolved from handwritten text and illustrations to the transformative printing press era (Eisenstein 1980), and finally the electronic periodicals of today that reside in online archives (Trealor 1996; Kling and McKim 1999). Other somewhat recent changes include the emergence of open access publishing (Laakso et al. 2011; Lewis 2012), greater transparency by publicly sharing the data and materials upon which a publication is based (O’Dea et al 2021), and enhanced peer-review processes intended to reduce bias and increase rigour (e.g., double blind referee models or, conversely, open review processes; Rowland 2002; Lee et al. 2013; Fresco-Santalla and Hernández-Pérez 2014). Through time, the scholarly publishing world has also become a highly profitable sector—this is increasingly regarded as problematic given that most labour is borne by the scientific community, which is overwhelmingly funded by public money (Buranyi 2017). What is certain is that the publishing world will continue to evolve such that the scholarly “paper” of the future will look and be very different from the scholarly paper of today (Sopinka et al. 2020).
One issue that has existed since the emergence of the scholarly literature is authorship. Early publications tended to be sole author or with very few authors. Such practices may have overlooked other individuals potentially deserving of authorship. Although it is impossible to know, we speculate that discussions around authorship may have been common at that time among those excluded from authorship. For example, Rosalind Franklin should clearly have been an author on Watson and Crick’s (1953) paper describing the structure of DNA (see discussion in Maddox (2002) and Percec and Xiao (2021)). Through time, the number of authors on a given publication has increased dramatically. From 1960 to 1980, the number of authors per article in 10 psychology journals increased by 48% (Sacco and Milana 1984). Aboukhalil (2014) reported a five-fold increase in the mean number of authors since 1913 and predicted that by 2034, publications will have an average of eight authors. The reasons for this increase in number of authors are complex and varied (see Stephan 2012) and appear to be most common for massive international experiments that require specialized infrastructure (e.g., sequencing genomes, revealing the mysteries of matter using particle accelerators), large data sets, and (or) team production models (Kuld and O’Hagan 2018). For example, the emergence of big team science (Wuchty et al. 2007), such as in experimental particle physics, has seen the emergence of multi-authored publications arising from consortia with thousands of coauthors (called hyper authorship; Cronin 2001). Modern communications technology and efficient travel networks enable scholars to reach out and connect with collaborators and build teams more easily than centuries or even decades ago (Rosenblat and Mobius 2004; Sonnenwald 2007). Moreover, there is greater appreciation for interdisciplinarity, which inherently requires multiple scholars (Porter and Rafols 2009; Andersen 2016; Cooke et al. 2020). Nonetheless, increasing the number of authors also has the potential to improperly credit individuals who failed to be meaningfully engaged with the research through various processes such as gifting authorship (Smith 1994; Wislar et al. 2011) or bullying (often by senior scholars given power differentials; Avila 2014).
Today, discussions continue around what constitutes authorship and who is deserving of such credit, fueled by what some regard as a worrying trend towards increasing the number of coauthors. Some of these discussions occur very publicly (as blogs, news items, or formal investigations led by journals or institutions; see Fleming 2021) but we presume that most are dealt with privately (or not at all), where individuals may hold grudges for being excluded or other coauthors (or members of the scholarly community) think individuals listed as authors are undeserving. At its core, authorship is about credit for activities that directly (or indirectly) enable the research as well as accountability for the outputs (both how the work was conducted and how it is reported). Often, authorship is thought to require some combination of idea generation, funding/project administration, data collection, analysis, interpretation, and reporting (e.g., COPE guidelines, the CRediT Taxonomy; see Allen et al. 2014; Brand et al. 2015). Yet, increasingly, other contributions are also being recognized (e.g., co-production, knowledge brokering) and may extend to include stakeholders and rightsholders (Cooke et al. 2021). The responsibility and accountability that accompany authorship emphasize that such positions are not trivial (Wager 2019; note that some have argued for decoupling credit and responsibility—see Paneth 1998). Authorship is used to assess performance and thus influences hiring decisions, promotions, awards, scholarships, salaries, funding, and invitations to serve or participate in prestigious activities that are beneficial to career advancement (Cronin 2005; Wager 2019).
The questions are many: Who deserves authorship? What are the ways in which contributors can earn authorship? How do we guard against gift or unwarranted authorship? What does authorship signal or mean to the broader community? And how do we overcome issues and conflict around authorship? Arguably, answers to these challenges are not straightforward. Indeed, these topics are timely and have been raised in a recent Nature Careers article (Fleming 2021). Here, we discuss key elements of authorship decisions informed by our collective experiences and relevant contemporary literature. Rather than dwelling on the problems (see Horton and Smith 1996, for example) we focus on proactive strategies for creating a more just, equitable, and transparent future where conflicts around authorship are minimized and where there is greater respect for the entire process of knowledge generation, synthesis, sharing, and application with partners within (including in other disciplines) and beyond the academy. We frame our ideas around 10 strategies for avoiding or overcoming perpetual conflict around authorship that collectively constitute a roadmap.
We focus on authorship in the context of credit and contributions but acknowledge that accountability and responsibility for research outputs is also an important topic. Indeed, potential authors need to have a full understanding of the responsibilities assumed when they assign their name to a publication. Yet, we submit that issues of accountability and responsibility are far less likely to lead to conflicts about authorship than issues of credit and contributions. There certainly could be instances where there is conflict related to research ethics, analysis, or interpretation which may be best addressed by Strategy 8 below. We take accountability and responsibility seriously and encourage ongoing discussion with potential authors about what being an author means beyond credit (see Rennie et al. 1997; Weltzin et al. 2006; Alfonso et al. 2019). It is worth noting that the Council of Science Editors suggests that “The ultimate reason for identification of authors and other contributors is to establish accountability for the reported work” (CSE 2018). We anticipate more discussion on this topic in the coming years as there is a move towards more inclusive authorship practices (e.g., see Cooke et al. 2021).
Our team is based mostly in North America and includes established scholars (including those who hold positions as journal editors) and early-career researchers, many of whom work at the interface of the natural and social sciences (focused on environmental problems and solutions). Thus, the perspectives shared here are informed by this context. We acknowledge that failure to attribute authorship to someone deserving of such credit and the attribution of authorship in cases where unwarranted are both problematic. We also recognize that there are different disciplinary cultures regarding practices such as author order and typical numbers of coauthors (Teixeira da Silva and Dobránszki 2016; Marusic et al. 2011). Moreover, some types of papers such as horizon scans or evidence syntheses may inherently have more authors than other article types (figshare.com/articles/poster/sys_rev_authorship_pdf/3178735/2#:∼:text=Systematic%20reviews%20are%20generally%20considered,into%20question%20their%20methodological%20rigor) while books, especially in the humanities, often have a single author. In other words, there will always be exceptions to the examples we present here. Although we do not specifically target early-career scholars, we submit that our ideas are most salient for them as they navigate the world of scholarly publishing and co-authorship in the spirit of trying to achieve an increasingly equitable, inclusive, and fair publishing system.