Meta Collab

In academia, authorship of an article is claimed by those making intellectual contributions to the completion of the work. Authorship of articles is a primary basis on which many academics are evaluated. Collaboration in modern academics is very common, and issues of authorship are sometimes controversial.

Guidelines for assigning authorship vary between institutions and disciplines. They may be formally defined or simply customary.

What constitutes authorship?[]

Some major institutions have put forth guidelines for authorship. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors specifies that authors must have made a substantial intellectual contribution to a study's conception and design, or to the acquisition, analysis or interpretation of data. They must also have drafted or revised the article's intellectual content, and approved the final version. The journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has an editorial policy that specifies "authorship should be limited to those who have contributed substantially to the work" and furthermore, "authors are strongly encouraged to indicate their specific contributions" as a footnote.

All co-authors should be able to understand and support the major points of the paper. An author's reputation can be damaged when he allows his name to be used on work he was not intimately involved with. In a prominent case, an American stem cell researcher had his name listed on paper that was later revealed to be fraudulent. Although the researcher is not accused of participating in the fraud, a panel at his university found that "his failure to more closely oversee research with his name on it does make him guilty of 'research misbehavior,'". [1]

Some papers will have quite a few authors. In genome sequencing and particle-physics collaborations, for example, a paper's author list can run into the hundreds. One commentator wrote, "In more than 25 years working as a scientific editor ... I have not been aware of any valid argument for more than three authors per paper, although I recognize that this may not be true for every field.[2]"

Authors are sometimes included in a list without their permission [3].

Honorary authorship is sometimes granted to those who played no significant role in the work, for a variety of reasons. Until recently, it was standard for the head of a German department or institution to listed as an author on a paper regardless of input.[4]

A phenomena termed ghost authorship is sometimes discussed in relation to industry initiated research. When an individual makes a substantial contribution to the research and is not listed as an author, he is considered a ghost author. Ghost authorship is considered problematic especially because it may be used to obscure the participation of researchers with conflicts of interest [5].

Order of authors in a list[]

Rules that have been applied to determine author order include:

  • in order of decreasing degree of involvement in the work.
  • alphabetical listing [6].
  • Biologists tend to place a supervisor or lab head last in an author list; organic chemists might put him or her first. [7]


  1. Holden, Constance. Schatten: Pitt Panel Finds ‘Misbehavior’ but Not Misconduct. Science. 17 February 2006, vol 311: 928.
  2. van Loon, A. J. Pseudo-authorship. Nature 389, 11 (04 September 1997); doi:10.1038/37855
  3. Anonymous (presumably the editor of Nature Materials at that time). Authorship without authorization. Nature Materials 3, 743 (2004) doi:10.1038/nmat1264
  4. Pearson, H. Credit where credit's due. Nature 440, 591-592 (30 March 2006) doi:10.1038/440591a
  5. Gøtzsche, P.C., Hróbjartsson, A., Johansen, H.K., Haahr, M.T., Altman, D.G., Chan, A.-W. (2007) Ghost authorship in industry-initiated randomised trials. PLoS Medicine 4(1), 47-52.
  6. Stubbs, C. Nature 388, 320 (24 July 1997); doi:10.1038/40958 .
  7. Pearson, H. Credit where credit's due. Nature 440, 591-592 (30 March 2006) doi:10.1038/440591a