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By Cally Guerin (with a lot of help from her friends Claire Aitchison & Susan Carter)

The thesis by publication (or article-based thesis) is becoming a common format in many disciplines and in many countries. While there are many advantages to writing up doctoral research (see on this blog, for example, Kalypso Filippou and Cally Guerin), this process does introduce some challenges of its own. One particularly difficult task is the expectation in many universities that any co-authored papers submitted for examination need to include a very clear indication of how much of the work was done by each author.

The papers included in a thesis by publication take shape over an extended period, with input from multiple sources – supervisors, co-researchers, advisors, librarians, technicians, peers. Some of these people ought to be accorded author status, but others are not usually seen as such. They may have written sections of the document, or advised on key issues relating to the design of the project, or contributed important information along the way. These elements can become seamlessly woven into the final product, so that it’s challenging to separate out the contributions of each researcher.

Sometimes it can be difficult to remember later on who was involved in the early discussions when establishing a PhD project – sometimes the quiet member listening to the discussion in the room says the one small thing that makes it all click into place. Is that 2% or 20% in terms of contribution? And do we always recognise that at the time, or is there a lag between hearing something and it coming to the forefront of thinking after it has simmered in the background for awhile?

Many of the author statements recommended by universities rely heavily on the widely recognised Vancouver protocol, which identifies authorship as contributions to the research as well as the actual writing. This can be in the form of:

  • 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 (ICMJE)

Other universities offer much more detailed descriptions. See for example, Aahlborg University (Denmark), Utrecht University (Netherlands), KU Leuven (Belgium), University of Tasmania (Australia), and Deakin University (Australia) has an “Authorship Statement” (accessible from here). Michael Healy, working in Australia, outlines his practical approach here, and provides a very helpful worked example that divides the contribution up into research preparation, manuscript writing and managing the submission.

Lists of tasks that lead to publication of research outcomes will often work through the stages of the project:

  • Project conception
  • Literature review
  • Theoretical framework
  • Methods
  • Results and data
  • Analysis
  • Text (which is only one element in assigning “authorship”!)
  • Correspondence with publisher

Then it is necessary to identify what each author actually did at those stages. A quick scan of the university examples provided above offers these verbs:

  • Defined, proposed, conceptualised, conceived, designed
  • Derived, implemented, performed, investigated, conducted
  • Identified, interpreted, analysed, verified
  • Assisted, helped, contributed, provided
  • Drafted, reviewed, critically revised

The idea of developing a template for identifying percentages of who has done what may be useful in some situations where multiple authors have contributed. This is particularly important in contexts where the order of authors is used to indicate the size of contribution in descending order (the person who did the most comes first, the person who did least comes last). Dissent over the appropriate author order can sometimes sour relations between the doctoral writer and their co-authors.

The challenge of identifying exactly who did what is exacerbated when people come and go from projects, especially if the time blows out; further complications can arise from power differentials or conflicts between personalities.

In order to pin down contributions to articles/chapters for a thesis by publication, a relatively simple record of who did what is needed. Perhaps something along the lines of the table below would provide sufficient detail to capture the main stages of the research work? This draws attention to “authorship” being more than writing text. Author #1 would usually be the doctoral candidate in a thesis by publication.

 Author #1Author #2Author #3
Conception & design   
Data generation   
Data analysis   

When it comes to putting numbers against each category, very fine-grained detail could become rather pernickety (and potentially adds fuel to the fire of any disagreements about contribution). Would it be helpful to restrict percentages to blocks of 25%? Or are 10% increments needed?

The negotiations about authorship percentages could begin from the following principles:

  1. Discuss authorship early in the research process.
  2. Record decisions, on the understanding those decisions are to be revisited as (or if) things change over time.
  3. Also consider (privately or collectively) how disputes could be handled, and who can offer guidance (e.g., if doctoral candidates and their supervisors disagree, is there an appropriate arbiter in the research group or department?).
  4. Consult other authorities to ensure proper protocols are followed (e.g., your own institution’s guidelines for assigning authorship in doctoral degrees).
  5. Keep accurate records of work done and share these so there is a trail of evidence – there should be no surprises for anyone involved! This can be invaluable in building trusting relationships between PhD candidates and their co-authors.

What experience have you had in assigning percentages to the tasks undertaken in the process of writing joint-authored papers for a PhD? Perhaps more importantly, is this a fruitless task, or one that can offer a rough guide to ensure all authors feel their contribution is adequately recognised? I’d love to hear what you’ve found useful.