One of the most ubiquitous challenges in research integrity is accurate authorship attribution. Authorship of publications is, alongside obtaining grants, the key element of career progression in research due to the way the current system is designed. This means that authorship is very important. It is so important to some researchers that they are happy to be named as authors when they did not contribute anything substantial - or anything at all - to a particular paper. These are ‘guest’ authors or honorary authors (an ironic name as there is nothing honorable about it). It is also so important that junior researchers are sometimes left off author lists when they did contribute substantially, because they aren’t deemed to have ‘earned’ authorship yet or their inclusion could dilute the credit given to the other authors. These are ‘ghost’ authors. Finally, ghostwriters are often paid by researchers to write articles in the expectation that they will not be credited. It should be noted that authorship paradigms differ between disciplines and what counts as a substantial contribution in one discipline may not count as one in another. For example, most papers in medical journals have several authors. In contrast, philosophy papers often have only one author (ref. Cutas and Shaw) and sometimes pages of acknowledgments. Often the people mentioned in these footnotes have actually contributed more than many of the authors of clinical research papers. The following sections focus more on the disciplines of science and medicine, because it is here that the problem is probably worst. Authorship issues exist in all fields, however.

Guest authorship

Authorship is ambiguous and its accurate attribution is heavily dependent on hierarchy. Junior researchers who are new to writing papers for journals are to a large extent at the mercy of senior researchers, who pass on dominant authorship practices to their new disciples. If a lab leader or department head expects to be named as an author on every paper written by any of his staff, he will probably get what he wants. If a junior researcher is brave enough to question why the senior should be credited when he hasn’t even read the paper, a mid-level researcher might attempt to justify the authorship by arguing that none of them would have a job if the professor wasn’t providing the grant and the lab facilities. This might seem reasonable to a junior researcher, but it is not (see Guidelines section below). Authors have to contribute to the writing of a paper. The hint is in the word itself. The phenomenon of guest authorship raises great difficulties for researchers. Not only can they come under pressure to acquiesce in adding people who are not authors to papers, it is often junior authors who actually submit papers to journals. Most journals now ask for a statement that all authors contributed substantially. If the submitting researcher ticks the box next to this statement (or inserts such a statement in the paper) he or she is violating research integrity (and many would say is also guilty of misconduct). But for many researchers, the alternative could be losing their job and career. Guest authorship in itself might seem like a relatively unimportant transgression, but it implicates all other authors in deception (and possibly fraud) and allows senior researchers to unjustly pad their CVs, sometimes widening the gulf in power between them and junior researchers. For any given paper, adding ghost authors will dilute the perceived contribution of the actual authors. And of course, if junior researchers come to believe that guest authorship is ok, this might be the first step on a slippery slope to other research misbehaviors.

Ghost authorship

The flip side of guest authorship is ghost authorship, where researchers who deserve to be named as authors are not given this recognition. It is even possible that a junior researcher could end up doing most of the research on a given project, writing most of the paper and submitting it, but still not end up as an author (an indignity rendered even worse if the paper also features guest authors). While guest authorship is freeriding, and dilutes the visible contribution of the other authors, ghost authorship amounts to theft of intellectual property. If someone has contributed, he or she deserves credit. Furthermore, the person who did most of the research is normally the guarantor of that research. If that person is not even credited as an author, In the case of paid ghost authors, the problem is rather different. Often, such authors are happy not being named on papers as they are paid for their services. But equally, if they do all or most of the work on a paper, it can often mean that the other authors are all rendered as guest authors (One study found that no named authors would admit they were the authors of one particular paper on cancer.) The main issue with guest authors is not lack of recognition, but that the named authors may not have conducted the research, much less read the paper in question. This is a magnified version of the last issue mentioned in relation to junior researcher ghost authorship.

Authorship order

In addition to establishing who should and shouldn’t be an author, there is the secondary problem of what order the authors should be listed in. Generally, the first author is assumed to have done most work, while in many disciplines the place of last author is regarded as indicating seniority. Again generally, most researchers would prefer not to be the middle author. But different disciplines and journals have different conventions. Some use alphabetical order, some use descending contribution order, and some use the first/senior author paradigm. Even when researchers agree amongst themselves that they should all be named as authors; the specific order can result in disagreement. It is now possible for people to be named as “co first authors” or even “co senior authors” so that a paper could actually have four authors in the two ‘best’ positions. Generally, discussion about who should be included as an author, and potentially the order of authors, should be discussed in advance (though subject to modification) in order to avoid disappointment and conflict later.

Because of all of these issues, various organizations including the ICMJE, COPE and WAME have developed guidelines that set out what criteria must be met for someone to qualify as an author (at least for those publishing in biomedical journals). The ICMJE recommends that authorship should be based on the following 4 criteria:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • 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. [

The creation of these guidelines is good in the sense that they provide a benchmark that can be used to guide whether someone should be named as an author. But they are not unproblematic. First, what constitutes a substantial contribution? Substantivity is subjective. I might get upset if I think I have made a substantial contribution and you think I haven’t. (Indeed, if I’m right and I’m not credited I will become a ghost author). While rigorous application of the ICMJE guidelines should prevent ‘total’ guest authorship where the named person made zero contribution, it will not weed out authors who merely read papers and gave a few comments.

It has also been pointed out that these authorship criteria might be too rigorous. Imagine that someone has a great idea for a study, someone else conducts the research, and someone else again writes and submits the results. None of these people would qualify as an author. The contributorship statement for this paper (see below) would say something like “X had the idea; Y did the research and Z wrote this paper. But none of us are authors.”

Contributorship and the future of authorship

Because of the ambiguity surrounding the concept of “substantial contribution”, some journals are moving towards contributorship statements that are published alongside traditional author lists. These statements make it clear(er) who did what on a given research project, e.g., DS did that, DT did that, BP did this. As well as providing clarity for readers, requiring authors to provide these details also encourages reflection about who deserves actual authorship, and acts as a disincentive to include guest authors and exclude ghost authors. An honest contributorship statement on a paper with guest and ghost authors would have to include a sentence like this: “ X and Y did nothing. Z did everything else but isn’t on the author list because we paid him.” Contributorship statements also allow for recognition of effort that does not qualify researchers for authorship, such as providing biosamples or machinery. However, while journals are moving towards contributorship, they are not yet moving away from authorship. Contributorship lists are often buried at the end of articles behind a paywall, while authorship lists are highly visible. It has been suggested that replacing authorship lists with contributorship statements would be the best solution, as it would replace a flawed and ambiguous system of attributing credit with a less vague and more specific one. But paradigms are resistant to change, and “author of 20 papers” will sound better than “contributor to 20 papers” for the foreseeable future. All researchers should treat authorship seriously and sensitively.

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Regulation and Guidelines COPE: Committee on Publication Ethics: Code of conduct and best practice guidelines for journal editors, 2011

Council of Science Editors (CSE): White Paper on Promoting Integrity in Scientific Journal Publications, Authorship and Authorship Responsibilities, 2012

International Committee of Medical Journals Editors, ICMJE: Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals, 2016

Office of Research Integrity: Authorship Guidelines, 2010 Swiss Academies of Arts and Science: Authorship in scientific publications. Analysis and recommendations, 2013

Finnish National Board on Research Integrity (2018) Agreeing on authorship. Recommendation for research publications. 

Albert, T. & Wager, E. How to handle authorship disputes: a guide for new researchers COPE Report. 2003:32–4

Marušić, A., Bošnjak, L., Jerončić, A. A systematic review of research on the meaning, ethics and practices of authorship across scholarly disciplines. PLOS One. 2011;9; e23477:1–17

Osborne, J. W. & Holland, A. What is authorship, and what should it be? A survey of prominent guidelines for determining authorship in scientific publications. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation.2009; Vol 14¸15

Roig, M. 2009. Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices: A guide to ethical writing.

Learning objectives

  • Knowing authorship criteria and understanding grounds for determining authorship
  • Recognizing that there are field-specific differences in assigning authorship
  • Understanding the importance of early agreement and open discussion as a way of preventing problems
  • Understanding when authorship can be negotiated and when a dispute warrants investigation


There are many guidelines to help researchers and editors in adopting good practices for authorship. Yet, authorship issues are a common source of disputes among researchers, and these disputes may result in allegations of misconduct. Common definitions of authorship in the guidelines generally include that it involves working out scientific questions/problems; approaches; processing; analysis and interpretation of results; manuscript/draft; and revision of manuscript. However, technical support, providing financial resources; being the head of an institute or leader of a research team, or proofreading do not automatically warrant authorship. A useful rule is that all co-authors are responsible for a) publication taking place in accordance to scientific requirements, and b) if any allegations are raised against misconduct. Indicating the individual contributions of each co-author is a good practice.

Cases and Questions - Authorship

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Case Determining author order

Imagine that Andrew, Michael, and Chris decide to collaborate on some research. Andrew has had a brilliant idea for a study, and he and Chris carry it out successfully. Michael writes a paper based on their results and analysis, and Chris checks and corrects it. All three approve the final draft. They are aware that their paper is of great importance, so they decide to submit it to the BMJ.

Original source: Shaw David. The ICMJE’s definition of authorship is illogical and unethical BMJ 2011; 343 :d7192​ 

- What do you think the author order should be here? Why?