Qualifications for authorship

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The record for number of co-authors on a published scientific article is held by a physics paper with 5,154 authors! Although nowhere near as extreme, articles in the biomedical field often have long lists of authors as well, and the number of papers with over 50 authors is on the rise. When that many people are included in the list of authors, one may wonder what exactly it means to be an “author”.

In their Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly work in Medical Journals, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) lists the following four criteria that should be met by contributors to a manuscript in order to qualify for inclusion in the list of authors.

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

All four of these criteria must be met to qualify as author. It is not enough to have obtained funding for the research. Nor is it enough to be the supervisor of the department where the research was conducted.

It is important to remember that authors not only get credit for the published work; they also bear responsibility for it. No matter how long the list of authors, each individual author must be prepared to be accountable for the work.

Some contributors who do not fulfill all four criteria for authorship nevertheless make contributions that are important for the success of the work. Such contributors can and should be included in the acknowledgements section. This includes, for instance, English language editors or translators.

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