A New Standard for Authorship

by Paul J. Friedman, MD
University of California, San Diego

The goal of biomedical scientific publication is the dissemination of timely information to practitioners of the scientific and medical professions in order to help them in the challenge of discovery and the alleviation of human illness and suffering. The principal mechanism is the selection, editing, and publication of research articles and reviews of originality, interest, and utility. The entire profession supports these efforts by contributing manuscripts as writers, time as reviewers, and money as subscribers, and often by serving as editors. In turn, biomedical publication has come to serve the profession as the most dependable recognition of merit.

Publication has become the essential achievement for academic advancement for both clinical and basic scientists, although the type and number of publications demanded may vary widely. Despite a recent increased emphasis on teaching as a meritorious activity, faculty and trainees realistically feel intense pressure to publish. One unfortunate result has been a proliferation of papers and journals and a variety of abuses of trainees, junior colleagues, and patients, and of integrity.

To help restore a sense of proportion and confidence in the validity of biomedical publication, this conference proposes a new step in the evolution of the concept of authorship. We propose to publish the contributions of the individuals associated with a manuscript. The information will be solicited on a modified copyright form, which will be filled out and signed by all the authors. We propose a check-off list, such as the following:

AUTHORSHIP CONTRIBUTIONS

CONCEPT the idea for the research or article, framing the hypothesis
DESIGN planning the methods to generate results
SUPERVISION oversight and responsibility for the organization and course of the project and the manuscript
RESOURCES dollars, equipment, space, personnel vital to the project
MATERIAL biological materials, reagents, referred patients
DATA COLLECTION
&/or PROCESSING
responsibility for doing experiments, managing patients, organizing and reporting data
ANALYSIS &/or
INTERPRETATION
responsibility for making sense of and presenting the results
LITERATURE SEARCH responsibility for this necessary function
WRITING responsibility for creating all or a substantive part of the manuscript
CRITICAL REVIEW reworking the manuscript for intellectual content before submission, not just spelling and grammar checking
OTHER for novel contributions

 

We emphasize that no one of these contributions constitutes the basis for authorship, but that it requires two or three, the appropriate minimum depending on individual circumstances, such as the number of authors. Note that some contributions formerly properly relegated to the acknowledgments section are included, but that those who participated in only one category would move from the authors’ byline to the acknowledgments. We also consider that this proposal supersedes the Vancouver group’s scheme for authorship.

The conference considered the concept of a “guarantor” of the whole paper or a specialized part, to respond to concerns about the integrity of research. We fear that this term has the connotation of guaranteeing the correctness of the results and interpretation, which goes beyond a rational requirement. On the other hand, we believe it is entirely appropriate that scientists stake their reputation on the honesty of what they publish, and therefore have incorporated the “responsibility” for various parts of the project into the list of contributions. If there is more than one individual in a category, then those who take responsibility should be identified. Note that these responsible individuals should be persons with regular institutional appointments whenever possible, to increase their stake in providing this assistance.

With regard to multi-authored, multi-institutional studies, this proposal may result in a large increase in the number of individuals listed in the authorship byline. We feel this would be appropriate recognition of those whose substantial efforts have made it possible to carry out important clinical trials, and would help them receive proper academic credit. Since a number of participants in this conference are, or were, author’s editors or “ghost writers,” their contributions were also considered. According to the contributions to authorship requirements, someone whose only contribution to a paper was writing would only merit acknowledgment, but more comprehensive contributions, such as adding the literature search and critical revision of the manuscript, might be considered worthy of authorship. The role of the statistician should be noted. If the only contribution is data analysis and interpretation, then an acknowledgment would be indicated. This should provide incentive for statisticians to insist on being involved in design of experiments, as well as writing or critical review of the manuscript, to earn authorship.

The conference did not review the troublesome question of authors’ intellectual rights to the publication. Current practice asserts that all co-authors have rights to the intellectual content of the entire manuscript. This means that they can use methods, ideas, conclusions, or even quote text (with attribution, however), without being guilty of plagiarism. We think that this broad approach will have to change as precise contributions to authorship become available. Of course, this only concerns unpublished manuscripts, as published papers are in the public domain.

In summary, we believe that wide implementation of this proposal will help restore appropriateness of credit, eliminate the redundant publications designed to provide “first authorship,” and clearly identify responsibility for the integrity of the biomedical literature.

Paul J. Friedman, MD
Professor of Radiology
University of California San Diego
School of Medicine
200 W Arbor Drive
San Diego, CA 92103