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Authorship: It’s all relative

Regional and cultural factors may play a role in whether researchers get their names on journal papers, but views on authorships remain drastically divergent, a study has shown.

Canadian researchers asked 6,000 of the world’s most highly cited researchers on the Web of Science about which research aspects they deem worthy of authorship, including supervision, experimental design, manuscript preparation and data analysis.

Their paper, which appeared in PLOS One on 16 January, suggests strongly that where researchers are based, and which language they speak, matters.

Whether supervisors deserve a co-authorship was the thorniest issue the survey showed, with researchers split overall—a thousand responding that supervision always merits authorship, and the same number saying that it never does.

A third of the researchers surveyed thought that providing resources merits authorship “always or usually”.

The surveyed researchers were most unified on who definitely should be an author, with those who drafted the manuscripts, or who analysed and interpreted data, seen as most deserving.

The PLOS authors write that assigning authorship remains a murky business. “The responses ranged from ‘always’ to ‘almost never’ for most activities independent of the scientific category, even for people in the same region, and [with the] same level of experience,” they write.

In our out?

The number of authors on individual papers are climbing worldwide. Between 1993 and 2013 the number increased from an average of 2-3 to 5-10, the paper claims.

Authorship is problematic, the paper says, both in terms of leaving out people who deserve to be on papers, and in terms of including those who don’t deserve to be there.

Some research funders such as the United States’ National Institutes of Health have attempted to curb ballooning author numbers. They offer grantees guidelines to “dissuade ambiguous attribution”. For example, the NIH discourages authorships for supervisors, those who provide research resources, and those who edit and comment on manuscripts.

But there are no concrete rules, with decisions on authorship still largely resting with principal investigators, the authors write. They doubt whether more, or more rigorous, systems guiding authorships will make much of a difference: “Our survey suggests that although many researchers are willing to follow more rigorous criteria, as many others will ignore them.”

Regions also matter

The United States, other Anglophone nations, and Northern Europe were found to be the least generous in assigning authorship. Researchers in Far East Asia (FEA) and South Asia were most likely to name as authors those responsible for “non-standard” contributions, including supervision, experimental design and sample management..

Only 22 Africans took part in the survey, which is understandable as Africa-based scientists are generally hard to find on highly cited lists. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa (MEA) were combined in the regional and cultural analysis of the PLOS paper.

It found that researchers in MEA and FEA were more likely to give author credit to colleagues who helped them write the article by correcting language, grammar and the like. “Anglophones recognize editorial contributions less than individuals whose mother tongue is something other than English. Furthermore, writing English is more difficult for Far East Asians than for Germans or Indo-Europeans.”

However, such editorial contributions were deemed overall to be less worthy of authorship credit than most of the other authorship criteria considered in the survey.