Authorship assignment: Recognising the contributions of individual authors of multi-authored reports

27 September 2021
SERIES OTT Best Practice Series 15 items

[This post is the introduction of the resource “Authorship assignment: Recognising the contributions of individual authors of multi-authored reports” by Raymond Struyk. Download the resource.]

Step-by-step over the past 50 years the production of social science research, including policy research, has shifted from a solitary enterprise to a team effort. The mental picture of research being done by a senior faculty member or a senior fellow at a research and policy institute (RPI), often supported by a research assistant, is inaccurate today. Rather it is teams of researchers with different skills that are combining not only to do most projects but to do them better than solo analysts. (RPIs include think tanks and other evidence-based policy developers whose projects often include co-creation with local officials and programme participants.)  ‘Reports’ are broadly defined here to include formal publications, such as refereed journal articles, books, chapters in books; an institute’s own publications; presentations later printed, e.g., presentations to parliamentary committees; and documents generated in carrying out projects that are generally available to the public.

A critical by-product of the shift to teams is a heightened importance of the structure of author attribution, i.e., who is included as an author and how the work of each is indicated by the order in which they are listed and, in some cases, by including notes on the title page that describe the role that each member of a team had in creating the work presented.

The stakes are high in getting an institution’s rules on inclusion and on authors’ name ordering accepted by staff as being reasonable. The number of their reports and where they appear in the authors’ lists are important factors in determining a researcher’s career path because visibility and prestige varies systematically with where one’s name appears on publications’ authors’ lists. And this, of course, depends on an institute’s policy on this matter – or the lack thereof.

Naturally the importance of greater exposure through advantageous name placement in authors’ lists depends on the staffer’s interests and goals.  If she is aiming for credentials that would permit her to move back-and-forth among academic-government-and RPI stints, name prominence is very important.  On the other hand, those squarely focused on policy development and implementation will place less emphasis on name recognition.  Nevertheless, they still want a degree of recognition as a capable analyst that helps their recommendations being given full consideration.

Interestingly, the literature on management of policy development institutions has had little to say about either who among those who work on a project should be listed as an author or the order in which authors are to be listed. One exception is a page on the inclusion issue in a recent book about think tank management.1 Additionally, Andrea Ordonez raises the inclusion issue in an On Think Tanks post and reviews basic rules to follow in making these decisions (On Think Tanks | Authorship in research: Practical tips for think tanks, 2013).

This paper starts by briefly overviewing the key empirical facts on the shift from solo-authored papers to team production. It also relates how successful a couple of the standard rules followed for listing authors are in identifying the relative contributions of team members.  Trends in authorship developments in journal articles are used here because they are well documented and pattern seems consistent with developments at RPIs. Then we introduce a couple of options for possible improvements in more accurately identifying individual contributions.

The discussion then presents information on the practices of four well-managed RPIs and their views on the options.2 These four do not constitute a representative sample. The four are:

  • The Urban Institute, a 50-year-old think tank with a staff of about 500 located in Washington, DC. It is focused substantially on social policy issues and was created as part of the national government’s response to broad declines in US central cities and violent urban demonstrations in the 1960s; it became a fully independent private entity in 1978.
  • The Institute for Urban Economics, located in Moscow, Russia is a 25-year-old think tank created in 1995 about four years after the fall of the Soviet Union, with a current staff of around 30. Much of the work on developing management policies and procedures was undertaken when it had a staff of around 100. The Institute was founded by Russian policy researchers.
  • NORC at the University of Chicago is an 80-year-old think tank with about 2,000 staff. It has conducted ground-breaking studies, created and applied innovative methods and tools, and advanced principles of scientific integrity and collaboration. NORC has a large policy research programme in transitional and developing countries.
  • The Results for Development Institute (R4D) is a 15-year-old international non-profit organisation with think tank roots located in Washington that works only in transitional and developing countries. It takes the long view of successful development that embodies collaborating as equals with local ‘change agents’ – government officials, civil society leaders, and private sector innovators – to support translation of knowledge into practice and developing relevant new knowledge. Its premise is that local leadership is central to self-sustaining change. I have been associated with R4D since its founding and include it among the sample because of its innovative approaches to its central work and an array of management issues.3

Below these are referred to as RPIs. As usual, I do not ascribe any particular policy to a specific organisation by name, consistent with my confidentiality pledge to them. However, for readers to be able to link different actions to a specific RPI I have assigned each of them a label, e.g., RPI-1, RPI-2, and so on. (The numbering does not correspond to the order in which the RPIs are listed above.)

The paper shifts at this point to a describe a structure for determining authorship assignments equitably and in a way that enables readers to better understand each author’s contribution.

Download and read the full article.

1. R. Struyk, Improving Think Tank Management, (Washington, DC: Results for Development Institute, 2015), p.36.

2. I am very grateful to Missy Nachbar, Tatiana Polidi, Gina Lagomarsino, and Margery A. Turner for discussing their institutes’ practices, engaging in somewhat broader, stimulating exchanges about these topics, and in some cases sharing internal documents.

3. See a statement of R4D’s principles.

This document is a part of the new OTT Best Practices Series. If you would like to submit a piece on best practices for research and policy institutes, please get in touch.