Demystifying Co-Authorship

If you are planning to publish during your time as a research student, you may be wondering how co-authorship works. Journal articles can have any number of authors*… but how do you decide who qualifies as an author? And what difference does positioning make in the author list?

In general: being an author on a publication gives you credibility and a CV boost. Yay! But from that basic starting point, standards and expectations vary a lot depending on your discipline.

In many humanities disciplines, where research tends to be an independent pursuit, it’s typical for publications to be sole-authored – and the sole author gets full credit for the publication. In disciplines where research is a team effort, co-authorship is much more common. If you are one of two or more authors, then you share credit with your co-authors. The closer your name is to first position, the better the paper will look on your CV.

In theory, the order of the names is meant to reflect the significance of each person’s contribution. In other words, the first author is the person who made the largest scholarly contribution to the work, and the last author is the person who contributed the least. But it can get much more complicated than that.

Sometimes authorship is political. It can be hotly contested, and negotiations over authorship can complicate working relationships. If you’re a research student co-publishing with supervisors, it can be especially tricky to navigate an authorship negotiation in light of the power imbalance inherent in the student-supervisor relationship.

Jorge Cham of PhD Comics came up with this somewhat (but I suspect not completely) tongue-in-cheek explainer of what authors’ relative positions can mean:

Comic showing a list of authors and explanations of their positioning. E.g. "The middle authors: Author names nobody really reads. Reserved for undergrads and technical staff."

So yes, academic authorship is a tricky beast. Fortunately, it’s not all on you to figure out how credit is shared.

Co-authorship at AUT

AUT has a Co-authorship Protocol (available from the Postgraduate Protocols page on the Student Hub Online). It states as a general principle:

Authorship should only be allocated to individuals who have made a significant intellectual or scholarly contribution to the research and its output, and who agree to be listed as an author.

PGP 2.5.2: Co-authorship protocol

In other words, listed authors should have each done some of the intellectual work resulting in the publication. This could include writing portions of the paper, producing graphics or tables, leading the research team, designing the methodology, collecting or analysing data, and so on.

The protocol goes into detail on how and when authorship should be attributed, and how to manage disputes. It also discusses intellectual property rights and specific information for those writing a thesis in Format 2. It’s well worth a read if you are co-authoring papers during your AUT research.

When it comes to sharing authorship with your supervisor/s, it’s helpful to have expectations clear from the outset. Early conversations about when and how you want to publish, including how you want to share credit, can prevent surprises (or conflicts) down the road. You can formalize these discussions in your Supervision Agreement document, which contains a section about intellectual property. If you haven’t got a Supervision Agreement, you can find it on the PG forms page.

It’s worth noting that, as a student, you can (and often would) be first author on a publication if you have made a major contribution to it. Supervisors are often second or subsequent authors if they have guided, but not actively conducted, the research. The protocol states:

Normally, when the student has been an active co-author, the student should be listed as the first author (subject to disciplinary norms). There are some instances where the student may not be the first author such as when the student’s project is part of a bigger project led by the supervisor, then potentially some outputs could have the project lead as the first author. These situations should be discussed and agreed in the supervision agreement in advance.

PGP 2.5.2: Co-authorship protocol

Co-authorship in academia

Looking beyond AUT, there are also broader co-authorship criteria and guidelines established for different countries, academic disciplines, and journals. If you aspire to a research career, it’s important to become familiar with co-authorship norms in your particular research area.

For example, authorship within health research is heavily influenced by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editorsdocument called “Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals”. This outlines 4 criteria for authorship and has a particular focus on the accountability of the author.

At a more local level, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council sets out just 2 criteria for authorship: an author must have “made a significant intellectual or scholarly contribution to research and its output” and they must agree to their inclusion as an author. The NHMRC guide goes into detail about what constitutes a contribution, and how disputes should be handled.

There are many more co-authorship criteria out there for different purposes. But across the gamut, two key factors are common: contribution and consent. To be an author, you must contribute to the research. And by consenting to be an author, you become accountable for the reliability of the research.

This reflects the fact that authorship comes with rights and responsibilities. A journal author has the right to claim credit (or partial credit) for the research presented in the article. But they also have the responsibility to ensure that the research is robust and responsibly reported. If an article is deemed flimsy or fraudulent, the authors’ reputations will be sullied. It can be a great career boost to be listed as a co-author, but you should only accept a co-author credit if you legitimately contributed to the article and you are confident of its quality.

*The current record for the most authors on a paper, as far as anyone is aware, is 5154 – which is apparently the number of physicists who worked together to estimate the size of the Higgs boson. I’ve never been more glad of ‘et al.’

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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