In research, authorship is an important exchange medium expressing someone’s productivity and professional esteem – just as capital expresses the success of an entrepreneur. However, often people who do not meet authorship criteria are on the author list or someone who has made a substantial contribution to the research or writing of a manuscript is excluded from that list. Guest authorship, or “honorary authorship”, and ghost-writing are common forms of scientific misconduct. Flanagan et al (1998) report a substantial proportion of articles in medical journals demonstrating evidence of guest authors (11-25%) or ghost authors (7-16%).

This type of misconduct is commonly dealt with by providing a set of requirements for authorship, e.g. the Erasmus MC research codes (http://www.erasmusmc.nl/cs-research/bijlagen/research-codes). In most cases these requirements will come close to the criteria set out by the so-called Vancouver group: the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). However, new standards for authorship have been put forward.

 

Vancouver update

In the early days the Vancouver group stated that authorship should be based on "substantial contributions" to EITHER conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of the data. In addition, the editors committee emphasized that important criteria for authorship would be drafting or revising and the final approval of the version to be published. Acquisition of funding or general supervision of the research and general administrative support or technical writing assistance are considered not to be criteria sufficient for authorship. The latest versions of the “Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals” (ICMJE Recommendations), was released in 2013 (see http://www.icmje.org). This update states that authors must meet all of the following four criteria: 1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND 2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND 3. Final approval of the version to be published; AND 4. Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work. Accountability implies that authors are confident of the integrity of the contributions of their co-authors.

However, some of these authorship requirements seem to be intended primarily to protect journal editors from the negative consequences of scientific misconduct instead of preventing authorship irregularities. Final approval and agreement to be accountable only ensure that after the event authors, or at least the corresponding author, can be held responsible for disregarding the journal’s authorship requirements. Editors lack control mechanisms and sanctions to prevent guest authorship or ghost-writing. And efforts to implement more specific criteria, such as the Erasmus MC research codes, do not seem to contribute much either. Some of these requirements are not really requirements for authorship: “f. One of the authors must take responsibility for the article as a whole” is not a requirement because one has to be an author already to take responsibility.

 

Contributorship and the POCON-model

In view of the growing complexity of scientific research and its communication, an alternative way of looking at authorship has been proposed. The key point in this approach is a detailed list of author contributions. Based on these elements, authors can indicate their functional role within the research team (e.g., principal investigator, co-investigator, or methodologist/statistician).

However, accepting 2 or 3 contributions as minimum requirement, leaves unresolved the question of the overall involvement that would qualify an individual for authorship. Guest authors could still be added to the author byline when they only have approved the final manuscript and trust all the other authors. Therefore, I suggest that we develop some sort of points-based system weighing each type of contribution and favoring contributions that require a lot of time and effort. For instance:

 

¼

CONCEPT

The idea or initiative for the research or article, framing the hypothesis

½

DESIGN

Planning the methods, e.g. questionnaires, to generate results

¼

RESOURCES/

MATERIAL

Contributions to equipment, biological materials, reagents, referred patients

1

DATA COLLECTION/

PROCESSING

Responsibility for doing experiments, managing patients, organizing and reporting data

1

ANALYSIS/

INTERPRETATION

Responsibility for making sense of and presenting the results

½

LITERATURE SEARCH

Contributions to the collection and interpretation of relevant papers

1

WRITING

Creating important parts of the manuscript

½

CRITICAL REVIEW

Commenting on draft versions, not just spelling and grammar checking

1

SUPERVISION

Oversight and responsibility for the organization and course of the project and the manuscript

¼

APPROVAL

Writing and approving the final manuscript

¼

ACCOUNABILITY

Ensuring that any integrity issues have been investigated and resolved

½

OTHER

Contributions to new reagents or method of analysis

7

AUTHORSHIP

Minimum: 2 out of 7

 

In this scheme, anyone scoring below 2 points should be relegated to the acknowledgments section. The functional roles of principal investigator, co-investigator or methodologist/statistician would easily score several points. But hopping on the bandwagon (scoring only on critical review, approval and accountability) would not meet the criteria. And for larger research groups it would be unacceptable that all authors claim to have contributed to the concept and design of the project. I know from my own experience that this POints-based CONtributionship (POCON) model would change several author bylines in my PubMed list.