Friday, December 19, 2014

Authorship: the trillion dollar question.

Every year, over a trillion dollars is spent on scientific research and development. 

Publication of that research is a requirement for most of that money. 

And authorship is the construct that assigns credit and responsibility to that publication.

Despite the centrality of authorship to the scientific process, the institution of authorship is rickety. 

It's like a car held together with tape and wire with knitted seat belts. 

"As long as you don't go over any bumps, you should be fine..." 

Authorship issues are rare, but a lot is at stake for a person to be considered an author or not. 

Not including a person as a coauthor when it is deserved deprives an individual of credit. Including a person that does not deserve or desire coauthorship dilutes the credit given to others and potentially creates liability for an individual on research with which they might not agree.

Almost every principle associated with coauthorship is tenuous. 

Let me elaborate on one: determining the list of authors.

There are three main bodies to examine here. The Committee on Publication Ethics. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. The Council of Science Editors. 

Here is how the CSE approaches the issue.

The Council of Science Editors states that there is general consensus on some points regarding the principles of authorship. One of these is that 

"Identification of authors and other contributors is the responsibility of the people who did the work (the researchers) not the people who publish the work (editors, publishers). Researchers should determine which individuals have contributed sufficiently to the work to warrant identification as an author."

To this point, there is no recommendation that at the point of initial submission, all authors sign a form that states that everyone agrees that each author listed deserves to be an author. 

Yet, let's say that during the review process, one author requests to be removed from the list of coauthors. Maybe they don't agree with a statement that has been inserted, or they have decided that their contribution was not substantial enough to warrant coauthorship. Alternatively, during the revision process a new author might be added due a contribution that arises as a manuscript is modified.

How should a journal deal with that?

CSE recommends that: 

"Any changes the authors wish to make to the author byline after the initial submission of a manuscript should be made in writing and the document should be signed by all authors, including those being added or removed."

This statement is a solution looking for a problem. 

And it's a solution that has the potential to create more problems than it solves.

First, it seems to directly contradict the consensus principle that the journals should not determine who is a coauthor. 

Second, it imposes inconsistent requirements. If there is no need for a statement that all coauthors agree that all other coauthors should be a coauthor initially when a manuscript is submitted, why during the review process?

Third, it forces a particular model of agreement on authors for determining coauthorship. All coauthors must agree, including any coauthor that has been removed. Before, it could be the lead author that determines whether a contribution was significant. Now, it's consensus.

If everything works perfectly, this imposes a slight burden on the authors. If the authorship list is long, the burden is somewhat greater and can delay publication somewhat substantially. 

But what if it doesn't work perfectly?

Here's a scenario to consider. Let's say a new statement is added to a paper during revision. One  coauthor disagrees with the statement. It might even be a statement that is independent of their previous contribution. All other coauthors agree with the statement and deem it necessary. If this happened before submission, the coauthors could agree to recognize that author's contribution in the acknowledgments. 

With the CSE requirements, by not signing a form for the journal, that coauthor now has the power to effectively block the publication of the manuscript in that journal. 

If the journal can override the requirement of all coauthors signing it, then why have it at all?

Here's another scenario. Let's say that a coauthor desires to be removed from the list of authors. Another coauthor thinks that they should remain. Again, this could effectively scuttle publication. 

Has this ever happened?

No idea, but that is immaterial. That it could happen is all that matters.

And we shouldn't have systems in place that only function when they aren't tested.

ICJME and COPE really do not provide much more clarity on the issue. 

For example, ICJME states that 

"It is the collective responsibility of the authors, not the journal to which the work is submitted, to determine that all people named as authors meet all four criteria; it is not the role of journal editors to determine who qualifies or does not qualify for authorship or to arbitrate authorship conflicts." 

This is consistent with CSE. 

What does ICJME recommend if there is a change in authorship?

"If authors request removal or addition of an author after manuscript submission or publication, journal editors should seek an explanation and signed statement of agreement for the requested change from all listed authors and from the author to be removed or added."

Same as CSE.

Why should the journal require this if it is not the responsibility of the journal to determine who qualifies as a coauthor?

Yes, one can think of nefarious situations where a higher power should step in and deliver justice. But, if something is outside the jurisdiction of a journal, it is outside the jurisdiction of a journal.

If disputes arise, what does ICJME recommend? 

"If agreement cannot be reached about who qualifies for authorship, the institution(s) where the work was performed, not the journal editor, should be asked to investigate."

Considering most work is done across institutions, which one should investigate? What if the work was not done at any institution? And if the institutions disagree? 

Let me turn anabolic for a minute. 

How should these issues be dealt with?

Here is the simplest solution. We need to redefine the responsibilities of the lead author. If we state that it is the lead author's responsibility, using generally accepted principles, to determine coauthorship, then all of these inconsistencies do not need to exist.

This adds liabilities and responsibilities to being the lead author, but they are pretty minor. And it codifies generally recognizable principles of how papers are constructed. 

What happens if something goes wrong under this construct? If an author is included in a paper against their will, that author can petition the journal to have their name removed. If an author is not included when they feel they should be, then they can petition the lead author's institution to investigate. Or the funding agency. If coauthors disagree on statements or inclusion of authorship, tie goes to the lead author.

It might seem imperial, but it's clean. 

I don't think these issues arise too often. And hopefully, we will not get to the point where we need scientific courts to resolve these issues. 

Still, that doesn't mean that our policies should not be as clear and consistent as possible.