Co-authorship: Experts have some clear words of advice

‘I’ve often been glad that we clarified things at an early stage’, says Edvard Moser, a brain researcher at NTNU.

Illustration of people writing on different devices.
Illustration: Robert Neubecker
The cover of the research ethics magazine no 3 2021
2021-3 From this issue we give you an article on scientists who decided authorship-order by croquet.

First published in Norwegian on 13 December 2021.

Conducting research involves many potential stumbling blocks. Who should be listed as the authors, and in what order? What do you do about the person who did not contribute to the actual research, but who was an essential ‘door opener’? And what if the first author suddenly moves out of the country before the work is completed? 
Research ethics committees and research integrity committees are well versed in conflicts about co-authorship. According to Heidi Østbø Haugen, professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Oslo (UiO), this is because such issues are directly related to ethics and good scientific practice. 
‘Researchers must be duly credited for their work. Ambiguities about authorship can weaken the reliability of research because they complicate the reader’s investigation and verification of results’, she believes.  

‘The stakes are high’

According to Knut W. Ruyter, research ombud at UiO, co-authorship is the area he receives the most enquiries about. He has acted as a mediator in several cases. The stakes are high because authorship determines scientific credit and recognition’, he points out. 
‘No two cases are alike. But almost all cases are about entitlement to authorship and disputes pertaining to that’, says Ruyter. 
Conflicts about authorship can encompass issues such as who should be listed as authors and why, and in what order they should appear.  

Difficult even with guidelines

There are some ground rules: for example the Vancouver Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals (the Vancouver Convention) include practical and ethical guidelines in medicine. These are also used in other fields. National research ethics guidelines also cover co-authorship. 
But even if you follow these recommendations, you can still encounter problems, according to Ruyter, who himself has a background in research on theology. 
So how can we make the co-writing of articles as painless as possible? We asked the following four academics for their advice:   

  • Knut Ruyter, research ombud, UiO  
  • Edvard Moser, professor of neuroscience, NTNU  
  • Heidi Østbø Haugen, professor of Chinese Studies, UiO, and author of a book on research ethics and data processing (Håndbok i forskningsetikk og databehandling)  
  • Marta Bivand Erdal, co-director, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)  

1st piece of advice: Start early. Clarify who will be co-authors and on what basis.   

All four panel members attach considerable importance to this. The situation must be clarified at an early stage, preferably in writing, emphasises Ruyter. 
‘Nowadays there is a tradition of signing written agreements about all conceivable financial matters, but not about this type of thing’, he says. 
He advises researchers to carefully consider the reasons why someone can and should be an author. The Vancouver Convention stipulates that no one can be given so-called honorary authorship. And anyone who provided access to data or funding for the research should be thanked in a footnote. 
‘The Vancouver Convention still leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It states, for example, that authors must have made a substantial contribution. But what exactly does that mean? For me, it means that the bar is high, but the discussion and disagreement often revolves around how little is needed to call something substantial.’  
It should also be remembered that co-authorship carries with it a responsibility, advises Ruyter. 
‘Authors need to be able to stand by the accuracy of their research. The last criterion in the Vancouver Convention emphasises this point. When cheating and fraud are discovered, some co-authors try to evade accountability. 

2nd piece of advice: Clarify the author order at an early stage.  

Edvard Moser has often been pleased that they have clarified authorship and author order at an early stage. 
‘That way everyone knows what’s been agreed, and the process will be guided by this. Changes may be made along the way, and these changes should also be discussed as soon as possible, so that expectations are explicit’, he says. 
All students at the faculty must familiarise themselves with the Vancouver Convention. The researchers then discuss which projects each of them should be involved in. They make a clear distinction between the first author and second, third and fourth authors. 
‘With us, the first author is responsible for driving the project forward. This person is often a PhD student or post-doctoral research fellow’, says Moser.  
The head of the lab is the last author, with responsibility for guidance and quality assurance. In many cases, this person also plays an active role in drafting the manuscript. In addition to this, the oldest and most experienced authors are listed in reverse order with the youngest first. Moser points out that other academic disciplines may have their own way of doing this. 
According to Knut Ruyter, some disciplines have established practices for author order, such as medicine. This applies in particular to the first author and the last author. 
‘It’s probably safe to say that the first author rule has become quite universal in the sense that more credit is given to the author ranked first than any of the others’, says Ruyter.  
Nevertheless, the lack of standardised rules for author order can create challenges, particularly within interdisciplinary and international projects, he points out. 
‘If there is a dispute, there is no procedure or body to resolve it. That’s one of the reasons why I advise researchers to enter into agreements beforehand, and that these agreements cover how conflicts are to be resolved.’  

3rd piece of advice: Clarify what the co-authors consider important.  

Do the co-authors have any deadlines, for example submission of a PhD thesis? Or do they want the article to be published in the best journal regardless of how long it takes? 
Heidi Østbø Haugen believes that clarifying this can be useful even if there is no existing conflict. She has experienced this herself in her current collaboration with a researcher in China. 
‘We wrote an article together that is now in a rather lengthy peer review process. My co-author is impatient to get it published quickly. But I’m finding it much easier to deal with the situation safe in the knowledge that we agreed to submit our paper to that particular journal.’  
Another relevant question is whether there is an urgency for the results to be made known to the rest of the world. In such cases, consideration should be given to where the research will be published swiftly, which journals have open access, who reads the journal, and what responsibility the co-authors have for publishing the results’, she advises. 
‘Different authors may apply different weighting to these questions. Anticipate the entire life cycle of a writing and publishing process, think through the potential issues that could arise at each step, and discuss these.’    

4th piece of advice: Be aware that the criteria for authorship may vary between disciplines.  

According to the Guidelines for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences, Humanities, Law and Theology, it is common in the humanities and social sciences to require that co-authors have actually contributed to drafting and finalising the manuscript. Only those who have contributed to the analysis and worked on the actual text can be co-authors.

Recommendations and guidelines on authorship  

  • The Vancouver Convention sets requirements that most medical journals use for the publishing of articles. It also includes practical and ethical guidelines for authors. 
  • The Vancouver Convention is used in various fields. UiO recently decided to make this the basis for authorship in all subject areas. 
  • The Vancouver Convention contains criteria for what entitles, or does not entitle a researcher to authorship. No one should be excluded from authorship on unfair grounds, such as by being excluded from the completion of a scientific work. 
  • Co-authorship is also covered in the Guidelines for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences, Humanities, Law and Theology and the Guidelines for Research Ethics in Science and Technology.  

Sources: ‘The Vancouver Recommendations’ by Johanne Severinsen and Lise Ekern (2017) on; Knut Ruyter, research ombud, UiO 

Haugen was a guest researcher in the Netherlands for a period. Another guest researcher, in biomedicine, was from Japan. 
‘This researcher did not have a shared spoken language with his collaboration partners. Nevertheless, they were able to co-publish. This would be difficult in the humanities and social sciences, where understanding and ideas cannot generally be seperated from the language we use to communicate them.’   

5th piece of advice: If problems arise, talk about them immediately.   

Edvard Moser has not experienced any serious problems in the collaborative writing process, but certain situations have been difficult due to external circumstances. 
‘A common reason is that the person running the project suddenly moves on and someone else takes over. Then we sometimes have to change the author order’, he says. 
Moser advises that the conversation about authorship should be held immediately, particularly if the researcher is moving out of the country. 
‘It’s difficult to persuade someone to take on a project that still needs a lot of work if they are not going to be rewarded. My years of research work has definitely taught me never to leave this discussion to the end.’ 
If it is not possible to identify who made the most substantial contribution, first authorship is often shared by writing an asterisk next to the relevant names to indicate equal contributions. One will still be presented first, but if you are applying for a job, this will be taken into account’, explains Moser.  
This can also be done if two people with exactly the same expertise have contributed equally.  
Dilemmas can also arise where it is important for one author to appear first, for reasons of employment or promotion etc., but where it is not crucial for the other author’, points out Marta Bivand Erdal. 
‘What do you do if their contributions are equal, and how do you justify it? Perhaps whoever is first will take the main responsibility for the revision? But what if both are facing the same pressure?’ 
Discuss it, she advises. Perhaps more than one article is planned, and the researchers can take overall responsibility for one each. Sometimes they may just have to agree to disagree, but find a solution in order to reach a settlement, she adds.  

6th piece of advice: Be aware of conflicts of interest across disciplines or countries.   

Haugen points out that international researchers often have different conventions and incentives. This can also apply to researchers in other fields. 
‘Funding arrangements can, for example, be different from country to country. For a Norwegian researcher, it may be important to publish a study in a level 2 journal, but this is not necessarily the case for a researcher in another country. Find out what gives publication points to both researchers. That way you can make good choices for all parties involved’, she says. 
According to Marta Bivand Erdal, other potential dilemmas can also arise, particularly when researchers in the Global North collaborate with researchers in the Global South. 
‘A lot of work goes into recognising the expertise, time and effort that colleagues in the Global South contribute, but there are numerous stumbling blocks. For instance, do you have to publish in English? What about different levels of proficiency in English? What about working hours? How should you organise the practical aspects of collaboration on an article?   

7th piece of advice: If necessary, bring in an independent third party.  

According to Knut Ruyter, it can be a good idea to have a plan for what to do if conflicts arise. 
‘Otherwise, you could spend an unbelievable amount of time arguing’, he says. 
Heidi Østbø Haugen advises researchers to bring in someone who can mediate and view things from an outsider’s perspective. 
‘It’s easy to believe that you’ll be able to solve the problem quickly by involving those closest to you, but it’s more important to do things right than to do them quickly.’ 
She suggests contacting ethics committees, a research ombud or a safety representative. 

8th piece of advice: Remember that authorship is about more than an article.  

Marta Bivand Erdal points out that problems can arise in a writing process even where the parties have no bad intentions. For instance: Does the research fellow dare to take up the professor’s invitation to take part in the writing project? Does the professor manage to create a climate for the exchange of ideas and opinions where everyone is heard? 
‘Co-authorship is part of everyday practice in academia, in which we are constantly carving out the academic culture that we want. Do we want a culture of generosity, tolerance, sharing, learning, reflection and dialogue? In that case, co-authorship is a good arena for doing something concrete’, she believes. 
She emphasises that researchers can nevertheless be critical and have professional disagreements. 
‘But we must maintain a calm tone and be respectful.’  

9th piece of advice: Seek good solutions internally.  

Edvard Moser believes that the boundaries and recommendations for co-authorship are often so unclear that the research community has to figure things out for itself. 
How the laboratory is set up can be crucial for his research work. They have reached agreement on this internally, whereby the person who sets up the equipment must be listed as a co-author – but only in the first published work. After that, the equipment is freely accessible to everyone in the lab. 
He notes that most other disciplines also have established traditions. 
‘It’s important to introduce young researchers to the culture early on, because it can create a lot of bitterness if someone feels that they’ve been unfairly treated. After all, getting recognition for your contribution is the very currency of research work.’

Translated from Norwegian by Carole Hognestad, Akasie språktjenester AS.