By David Woods

While there is no universally agreed definition of authorship, several organisations, including the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) and the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME), have taken a stab at defining what constitutes authorship.

ICMJE, for instance, recommends the following criteria:

  • Authorship credit should be based upon substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and direct responsibility for the final approval of the version to be published.
  • When a large, multicentre group has conducted the work, the group should identify the individuals who accept direct responsibility for the manuscript. The ICMJE notes that acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, alone, does not justify authorship; on the other hand, everyone designated as an author should qualify for authorship, and all those who qualify should be listed. The order of authorship on the byline should be a joint decision of the co-authors, who should be prepared to explain the order in which authors are listed.

WAME urges that all journals should publish guidance about what constitutes authorship; but while the association suggests awareness of the ICMJE guidelines, it waspishly suggests that these are the subject of some controversy, represent the views of editors rather than authors, and are widely disregarded even by authors publishing in ICMJE journals.

Authorship, says WAME, implies a significant intellectual contribution to the work, some role in writing the manuscript, and reviewing the final draft of the manuscript – but authorship roles can vary.

Who will be an author, and in what sequence, should be determined by the participants early in the research process, to avoid disputes and misunderstandings which can delay or prevent publication of a manuscript. For all manuscripts, the corresponding author should be required to provide information on the specific contributions each author has made to the article.

While all authors are responsible for the quality, accuracy, and ethics of the work, one author must be identified who will respond if questions arise or more information is needed and who will take responsibility for the work as a whole.

You can see that there’s a measure of agreement here – some of it based on common sense, some on covering all bases, and some on enlightened self-interest. The main points to look for, though, are responsibility, rigour, and transparency.