Tackling the challenges of academic co-authorship

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new white paper published by Taylor & Francis Group has revealed that researchers may not be equipped to cope with the ethical questions that academic co-authorship brings, despite its significant growth in the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS). These findings come from a survey of 894 researchers working in 62 countries; a collaboration between Taylor & Francis and Professor Bruce Macfarlane of the University of Bristol.

Increase of co-authorship

Co-authorship, when two or more researchers collaborate on a published academic article, has long been a feature of research activities in the Sciences, but writing has often been regarded as a solo pursuit in HSS. However, Co-authorship in the Humanities and Social Sciences: a global view reveals that collaboration in HSS is increasingly typical. 74 per cent of respondents to the survey report that the number of authors per journal article is now two or more.

There is a range of reasons why such a growth has occurred, but respondents most commonly attribute it to increasing competition and the performance-based pressures in academic life. 'The need to publish more to be promoted and tenured means that cooperative authorship seems a good return on investment,' reports one researcher. Many respondents also pointed to the growth of opportunities to collaborate, including a proliferation of research networks and advances in technology which now make it easy to work on the same text electronically.

Challenges of co-authorship

This growth in co-authorship means that HSS researchers are now faced with a range of new questions. The most common among these is: in what order should the authors’ names appear on a paper? Should they be listed alphabetically, in order of seniority, or reflecting the relative levels of intellectual contribution to a paper? Who should get the prized ‘first author’ position? 

Another common problem facing researchers of multi-authored papers is determining whether a colleague has contributed sufficiently to the paper to deserve an authorship credit. Should the supervisor of a PhD student or a research grant holder be included by virtue of their position?

These questions are significant, because author credits are an increasingly important currency of academia, vital for career progression, funding, and success in research assessments. Questions of authorship are now among the most common concerns in publishing ethics.

Lack of training and guidance

The report finds that few HSS researchers currently receive guidance and training on authorship. Only 18 per cent of researchers have ever received training from their institution in respect to determining academic authorship and just 25 per cent of respondents reported that guidance on authorship is included in the research ethics policy of their institution. A researcher in the USA reported that there is 'a lack of institutional support for co-authored work in funding or promotion'. 

Confusion and dissatisfaction

This absence of support for researchers appears to be resulting in confusion and a dissatisfaction with current practice. For example, the research finds that there is a ‘reality gap’ when it comes to deciding who should be listed as an author. Compared with the researchers’ ideal world, in practice too much importance is currently placed on being a senior ranked academic, the supervisor of a doctoral student, or a grant holder. Survey respondents made it clear that they are unhappy that senior academics tend to be over-credited and that junior ranked academics are under-credited for the work that they do. 'Deans and departments chairs often ask to preview your manuscript, and it comes back to you with their names attached as co-authors,' complained one respondent.

Improving the situation

The white paper raises important questions for institutions, scholarly societies, and publishers about the role they can play in helping researchers deal with co-authorship problems. Institutions that do not currently have authorship policies need to create them and those that do could be better at disseminating them. Societies may also wish to consider whether they can take a more active role in defining and encouraging best practice in their field.

The survey found that most journal editors and reviewers are prepared to intervene if they believe that authorship of a paper has been misattributed. It is unlikely that monitoring these issues could become a routine part of their role, but publishers should ensure that editors and reviewers are properly supported when they do encounter them.

This report may also help researchers to go into the process of co-authorship with their eyes open. The problems that can arise from collaboration may not have been considered by all authors, especially if they are at the beginning of their career. Agreeing early on how authorship attribution is to be decided, at the point when researchers first begin collaborative projects, may help to prevent disputes or dissatisfaction from ever arising.

Read the full white paper for more details.

Mark Robinson, Taylor & Francis Author Services