Blog by Dr Juliet Vickery, Head of International Conservation Science, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science 

"Publish or perish" - A phrase coined to describe the pressure in academia to rapidly and continually publish academic work to sustain or further one's career. (Wikipedia)

In an era of publish or perish and where scientists are measured in increasingly complex publication metrics such as citations, altmetrics, h and i10-indices, it is hardly surprising that ‘who is on what paper and in what order’ has become an increasingly important, and sensitive, issue. However, despite its importance, hard and fast rules with respect to authorship are very difficult to develop and/or apply. Authorship disputes can, at best, lead to otherwise smooth collaborations degenerating just as the science is reaching its conclusion, and at worst a court case!

Even journal editors don’t agree on what does and does not constitute authorship. A common standard is the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (Vancouver group). This states thatAuthorship 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. Acquisition of funding, the collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, by themselves, do not justify authorship.” But the phrase ‘significant/substantial contributions’ remains subjective - so how do we avoid excluding or including people that do or don’t deserve authorship? 

To try to help teams and individuals the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science has produced a set of publication guidelines.

My own top tip is to start discussing authorship as early in the process as you can. Don’t be afraid to raise the subject right at the start. There will often be a good idea of the key publication(s) that are likely to arise from a study and discussing who is likely to be most involved in these at the outset will help manage expectations. Continue to discuss authorship(s) as the project progresses and keep a written record of what has been agreed. Many authorship difficulties are caused by differences in expectations and/or poor communication – this will help overcome many of them.

Disputes that arise around definitions of the words ‘significant/substantial’ often fall into two camps. The first relates to a culture where the custom or practice is for the head of a research group (or equivalent) to be on all papers from a group simply by virtue of this position. It is often hard for a junior author to challenge this. There are two options; agree a roadmap with the senior scientist that ensures you do gain their direct input or; find ways to sensitively challenge this ‘culture’. In the latter case, a university/institute/NGO’s  publication guidelines, and the move towards journals requesting details of the contributions of authors, can help.

The second is often around the inclusion of those who have not, in the strictest sense, done enough to merit it. In the case of more senior scientists, it may be useful to refer to the organisation’s publication policy and to keep written records of contributions. For more junior scientists and/or those from developing countries, it may be more difficult to judge. Their experience and knowledge can limit their input but often, for example in the case of data collection, the work would not have been possible without them. My own view, and some will disagree, is  - if in doubt be inclusive – why not apply the same moral code to publications as many of us do in life?  ‘Do as you would be done by’, ‘treat others as you wish to be treated yourself’, may be old fashioned sayings but they are no less meaningful for that. I have benefited a great deal from inclusion on papers as junior researcher where I contributed to the best of my, limited, experience. The writing and submission of such papers was a real learning experience and I remain incredibly grateful to those who mentored me through the process. Perhaps that is why I feel so strongly that we should err towards inclusion of junior researchers especially those from developing countries. As head of a team that works extensively in countries in sub Saharan Africa, I know that much of our work would have been impossible without the benefit of their local knowledge to modify and improve data collection. Absolutely rightly, almost all our publications in the last ten years in these countries include in-country researchers as authors – something that has helped many of them develop and further their career.  

Perhaps the fact that the papers are one of the few quantitative ways most scientists can be measured, with our work summarised to a set of scores and metrics, has reduced ‘publications’ to a numbers game. Of course publication is an absolutely fundamental part of research - science progresses by building on knowledge and that knowledge has to be peer reviewed and in the public domain. It is a great testament to the quality of RSPB research that, over the last 10 years, in the field of ‘environment/ecology’ RSPB ranks 4th in the UK interms of the average citation-rate of papers (a metric of the overall impact of our research.)

But let’s not allow this measure of success drive behaviour. The paper writing process can be a force for good – seeing work come to fruition, building young researchers and strengthening links – as well as the end product playing vital role of communicating our work. A few simple rules can help make the process a lot less fraught and a lot more rewarding.