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By Cally Guerin

In the process of writing a paper with a group of colleagues recently, I was reminded of the complexities of assigning authorship. In particular, the question came up regarding who had done the most important and/or the most difficult work.

Some felt that the original concept for the research was most important; others claimed that research design was the challenging part; another felt that organizing the data collection and actually collecting some results was key; yet others believed the analysis of that data mattered most; and for others, framing all that empirical data in the relevant literature and locating it in the current debates in the field was what took creative imagination and lots of background reading and preparation.

These issues are pertinent to doctoral candidates writing joint-authored papers in theses by publication. At my university, a statement detailing who did what must be signed by all authors for any co-authored chapters written as journal articles (whether or not those chapters have actually been published yet). This is sometimes fairly straight forward if there are only the supervisor and candidate to be named. In other situations, where to draw the line on who contributed what gets considerably murkier.

There are some guides to working this out. The Australian Code of Conduct for Responsible Research states that:

Attribution of authorship depends to some extent on the discipline, but in all cases, authorship must be based on substantial contributions in a combination of:

  • conception and design of the project
  • analysis and interpretation of research data
  • drafting significant parts of the work or critically revising it so as to contribute to the interpretation.

It is possible to think that this means the three elements listed are of approximately equal importance, though there are plenty who wouldn’t agree.

The Vancouver Protocol makes it clear that legitimate authors must participate in all stages of

  • conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data

AND

  • drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content

AND

  • final approval of the version to be published.

But these codes and protocols tell us more about who should be included, rather than how big their contribution might be (‘substantial’ is not all that helpful when it comes to disputes over percentages of contribution – everyone might think their work counts as ‘substantial’). It seems that some researchers still place greater value on some elements of the project than others do.

Suzanne Morris has made a very valuable contribution to this discussion. Her tool, Authorder, goes a long way towards working through these more complex questions – although it does require that all authors cooperate in finding agreement on what percentages they are willing to assign to the full range of tasks undertaken in writing a paper. While it is not prescriptive in terms of what tasks to include in the list, nor the percentages that ought to be assigned to each task in the process, Authorder is a wonderful instrument for guiding what can sometimes become a rather difficult discussion.

I love co-authoring papers, and have learnt a huge amount about writing from everyone I’ve written with – how they approach their research, tips on everything from ethics applications to database searches, and the writing processes that they find useful. Part of this learning includes discovering where other authors place the value and importance in their writing.

What are your experiences of co-authoring? When it comes to getting credit for your work, what should you be rewarded for? What takes the most time? What is valued most? Are all parts of the project and writing equally important for getting a paper ready for publication? It would be really helpful to hear more from others about the complexities of this area of doctoral writing.

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