Authorship in research: practical tips for think tanks

2 April 2013

I just spent some days with a fantastic group of think-tankers, sharing some of the learning from creating the research area at Grupo FARO. Although I initially thought that the topic of authorship when it comes to research might not be as relevant to others, it ended up being that most researchers have encountered issues on the matter. Whether working at a think tank, going through a PhD programme or working at universities, authorship issues are much more common than I thought. Although authorship is different when we talk policy, for think tanks’ academic side it is still relevant. So, here are some insights, based on the discussion we had and The Cope Report 2003 report that sets some guidelines.

Why is authorship clarity relevant for think tanks?

Authoring papers is a big deal for researchers. Many think tanks’ performance schemes and incentives are based on the number of publications. But, do we have clear rules that prevent these incentives to affect the ethics of authorship? Free riders can appear in the process, senior researchers can impose their name on a paper, and so on.

What’s more, junior researchers are eager to strengthen their publications record. But how exactly does their participation in senior researchers’ projects help them? Not having clear guidelines might create false expectations and actually deteriorate what could otherwise be a motivational aspect of their work. Authorship disputes can really affect a working environment and even inhibit cooperation among researchers.

With authorship does not only come credit but also responsibility.  Authors cannot only benefit from incentive schemes, but can actually suffer the consequence of badly carried out research once it is public. In these unfortunate times organisations can actually benefit from the “…this paper represents the author(s) position…”  small print.

On the other hand, as one of my colleagues at this meeting mentioned, think tanks’ research is not free of danger. Although some contexts are risk-free, others can put in danger an author’s security. Would it then be a good idea to use an institutional or group’s name instead?

What is ethical authorship?

Basically it entails giving credit to everyone who deserves it and not including those who do not. But how can we determine that?  The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), I think, summarises it in a rather simple way.

Authorship credit should be based only on:

(1) substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;

(2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and

(3) final approval of the version to be published.

Conditions (1), (2), and (3) must all be met. Acquisition of funding, the collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, by themselves, do not justify authorship.

And we should not forget about the order of authors. Although there is no set standard on what the first name on a paper means, citation methods do give that first surname an extra-bonus thanks to the so popular use of ‘et. al.’

Whether authorship is alphabetical or the first author has a meaning (i.e. coordination, main researcher), do not forget it may affect the teams internal workings.

So how do we encourage ethical authorship?

  • If there are any sort of guidelines for research at the think tank, authorship should be included. Like most things that cause conflict, the idea is to bring it up sooner rather than later. For example, at Grupo FARO, we encourage teams to discuss and define authorship at the onset of a project. Furthermore, some teams have stated each participant’s contribution to the process which adds clarity and may help later if disputes arise. The issue then needs to be brought up every time someone joins or leaves the team.
  • Promote the use of acknowledgements. These can prevent authors from feeing that they are leaving someone out, and this way others’ contributions will be stated.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Even if researchers may not want to talk about this, it is the leaders’ job to bring it up. After all, this may end up turning into a reputational hazard.

Even with these preventive actions authorship disputes may arise: be ready for them. Document the decision making process and include a dispute solving mechanism as part of whichever ethical structure the think tanks has (i.e ethical committee or code).