A group of the nation’s leading scientists, academics and editors of scientific journals are calling for changes in the way author contributions to journal articles are handled, saying that greater transparency and uniformity are needed to ensure that scientists are properly credited, or held accountable, for their work.
“Despite the importance of scientific authorship to the professional prospects of scientists, the concept of ‘authorship’ remains clouded,” the group wrote in an article published on bioRvix.org. The website provides authors with a preprint platform to garner feedback from the scientific community before their work is submitted to scientific journals.
The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands and the National Academy of Sciences asked more than a dozen scholars, scientists, and journal editors to examine the authorship issue in February 2017 at the former winter home of ambassadors Walter and Leonore Annenberg in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The retreat was convened by National Academy of Sciences president Marcia McNutt and Sunnylands president David Lane. It was organized by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the program director at Sunnylands and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and Barbara Kline Pope, NAS executive director of communications.
Other attendees of the retreat included Monica Bradford, executive editor of Science; Jeffrey Drazen, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine; and Randy Schekman, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Sunnylands retreat participants noted in their published report that authorship contributions in journal articles can be misleading and are not governed by a consistent set of procedures. For example, the order of author attributions does not always accurately convey the hierarchy of contributions to a scholarly work or detail the contributions any particular scientist made to a study.
In addition, the report cites the existence of harmful publishing practices, such as deleting the names of some scientists, in this case known as “ghost authors,” whose contributions might raise the specter of a conflict of interest. The report also cites the problems of “guest/gift/honorific authors,” who are given credit yet have not made a substantive contribution and are added to the author list by virtue of their stature in an organization; “orphan authors,” who contributed to the work but are unfairly omitted from the authorship list; and “conscripted authors,” scientists who made no contributions to a piece of work but whose names were used without their knowledge to increase the likelihood of publication.
To safeguard the integrity of research, the Sunnylands retreat participants asked scientific publications to adopt four best practices currently in use by leading journals. They also made recommendations for other stakeholders, such as universities and scientific societies.
The recommendations for journals are to:
- Set standards to specify the contributions that warrant authorship, outline the responsibilities of corresponding authors, and establish standardized methods across different publishers for capturing author contributions in journal metadata.
- Clearly articulate expectations for corresponding authors, and make them responsible for managing the contributions of all the authors of a study, including verification of all data, materials and coding.
- Commit to the use of CRediT (Contributor Role Taxonomy) as the best available method for embedding authors’ contributions in journal metadata.
- Encourage authors to adopt ORCID and other standard digital identifiers for the research community to track authorship contributions across publications and across time.
See how ORCID digital identifiers are used with the authors of this report.
For other stakeholders, the recommendations encourage:
- Universities and research institutions to develop, post, distribute and regularly review and update their policies on authorship.
- Funding agencies to adopt ORCID to encourage widespread acceptance of a unique digital identity for scholars.
- Scientific societies to hold special sessions on the topic of integrity in authorship at scientific meetings.
- Additionally, to help detail author contributions beyond what is available through CRediT, the Sunnylands retreat participants encouraged the creation of a cost-free, web-based tool that would foster experimentation in ways to increase authorship transparency and accountability.
The authorship retreat followed a Sunnylands retreat in February 2015 on ways to better protect the integrity of science. That earlier retreat, convened by the late Ralph J. Cicerone, then president of the National Academy of Sciences, generated recommendations published in Science in the article “Self-correction in science at work.”