Co-authorship in the social sciences, law, theology and the humanities

Writing in partnership with others can be rewarding. Responsible discussion among colleagues about the production of a jointly authored piece of writing can improve its quality. The joy of co-operating is a bonus. When two or more people are writing in partnership, their joint work will have several authors or co-authors.


Co-authorship can also bring ethical challenges. The authorship must be genuine and of a scope which ensures it is not of an honorary nature. A title or a position is not sufficient to be credited as co-author. The distribution of responsibilities must be clear, providing an explicit account of the role played by each contributor and the nature of their respective contributions.

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We have recently encountered another type of challenge with respect to co-authorship issues, created by the introduction of new performance-based budgeting practices at scientific institutions, with publication providing an important performance indicator. This can generate a pressure to publish, and co-authorships, however flimsy their basis, may attract higher scores and therefore offer prospects of a more favourable financial situation, but also a more uneven distribution of funds among disciplines.

The field of research ethics has long been concerned with establishing a code of good practice for scientific authorship. A set of rules has been drawn up to make sure that authors of research literature are genuine authors. Potential forms of infringement of good scientific practice have been given due consideration. However, the existing rules do not always provide sufficiently clear guidance, as exemplified by the research deception case at the Norwegian Radium Hospital in 2006, which triggered much discussion about whether or not the main researcher's co-authors fulfilled the co-authorship requirements. An added complication is that the rules drawn up for the various academic disciplines are not identical. There are different academic traditions and different research ethics requirements.

Guidelines issued by the National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH)

According to the guidelines for research ethics in the social sciences, law, theology and the humanities (NESH 2006) only those who have actually contributed to the documentation, analysis and writing of a scientific work may be credited as co-authors (section 32). For example, a person who contributes to the documentation, provides ideas for the analysis, comments on the writing, or provides technical assistance of various kinds, will not fulfil the criteria for co-authorship under these guidelines. It may be worth noting that writing constitutes an explicit requirement which must be fulfilled alongside the two other requirements. The NESH guidelines have been given a simpler and stricter wording than the guidelines for authorship in medicine (NEM) and the natural sciences (NENT). The NEM and NENT guidelines provide the option of choosing between two possible authorship requirements, and both allow researchers to opt out of the writing requirement, among others. The NESH guidelines on the other hand, are absolute and allow no alternatives. Contributions that fail to meet the requirements for authorship, must be distinguishable from the authors' contributions. The NESH guidelines refer to the rules for medical research: "Pursuant to the Vancouver Convention (uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals), it may sometimes be feasible to distinguish between authors and other contributors" (ibid.). These other contributions may be credited by other means, e.g. by way of reference or a note of thanks in the preface.

Co-authorship has not been common practice in the social sciences, law, theology and the humanities. Books, articles and theses at master's and doctoral levels are normally independent works conceived and written by a single person. Normally a sole author has formulated the research questions, collected and processed the data and written the text. Of course, most researchers interact with colleagues and often discuss their work in a wider research environment, while attending seminars, conferences etc. This is part and parcel of academic work practices. In the humanities and the social sciences, PhD theses have traditionally been monographs written by the candidate as the sole author. The supervisor is not normally credited as a co-author at either doctoral or master's level. Nevertheless, many sole authors have chosen to refer to other contributors, often by thanking them in a preface or in an introductory footnote. This practice appears to be becoming increasingly common.

In other words, the strict NESH guidelines are founded on a sound tradition and practice within the relevant disciplines. It may also be argued that in disciplines which are particularly focused on culture and society, and for which linguistic communication constitutes a particular topic, the interpretation of the word "author" will automatically be associated with "a person who writes" – i.e. a writer.

On the other hand, representatives of the natural and medical sciences have maintained that there is much to be said for referring to non-writing contributors as co-authors in major research projects, when research teams, often multi-disciplinary, are established, and/or when there is a need for various types of specialist expertise. However, co-authorship has been a matter of dispute within these disciplines as well. Two high-profile medical debate panellists have substantially different views. Professor Per Brandtzæg has maintained that it is not possible when working in multi-disciplinary teams and on major projects to vouch for all the details of a jointly authored article, and that co-authorship must be based on trust between researchers rather than on assuming responsibility for the entire article on behalf of all co-authors. He also feels that supervisors should normally be credited as co-authors of theses. Professor Magne Nylenna, on the other hand, bases his point of view on the definition of an author as a person who has written something. He argues that unjustified co-authorships represent the most common form of misconduct in research (Nylenna and Brandtzæg reported as per, open meeting on co-authorship 10 March 2006).


The humanities and social sciences have nevertheless seen instances of co-authorship being attributed to contributors of ideas or technical assistance alongside the actual writers of the text. According to a small survey conducted by NESH in 2008, the practice of crediting contributors other than writers with authorship appears to be employed in some of the social sciences, such as psychology and sociology, and particularly in disciplines and subjects that are closely related to medicine and the natural sciences. However, these are exceptions in the humanities and social sciences as a whole. Most of these disciplines fulfil the requirement that authorship be attributed only to those who write.

The question of whether to credit supervisors as co-authors tends to be raised if the thesis takes the form of a collection of articles. Even the humanities and the social sciences now accept theses submitted in this format. However, general practice may not follow the trend in the natural sciences, where it is not uncommon to credit supervisors as co-authors of one or more of the degree work articles. In this context, we may ask whether co-authorship is in fact consistent with the requirement that doctoral works, which form the basis on which the candidates are tested, are produced independently. We may also ask whether the supervisory function, which is a pedagogical activity involving a teacher-student relationship, is compromised by crediting the supervisor as co-author.

Nor can it be argued that there is a causal relationship between major, often multi-disciplinary research projects and the use of non-writing co-authors. Major research projects are also conducted in the humanities and the social sciences, without an apparent need to spread authorship. On the other hand, practice with respect to clarifying the nature of other people's contributions has not always held the highest standard, particularly within the humanities. This particular piece of writing can therefore draw a unifying conclusion: irrespective of the prevailing practice in a particular discipline, whether different types of contribution qualify for authorship or whether this attribution is restricted to those who do the writing, it is always important to provide a fair account of each contributor's input and responsibility.

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Hege Hernæs, Akasie språktjenester AS.