Six questions about the authorship of academic articles


Some academic articles have hundreds of authors, and others only one. On 6 December, this will be the subject of the first Nijmeegse Middag van de Wetenschappelijke Integriteit (‘Afternoon on Academic Integrity’) on campus. Six questions about the enormous cultural differences among the departments.

# 1 How large are the differences among the departments?

The number of authors’ names above an article strongly depends on the area in which the researchers are working. In law or the humanities, for example, it is very uncommon to work on an academic publication with more than one or two people. However, medical articles often list tens of authors, sometimes even hundreds. Social sciences and life sciences fall somewhere in between, with two to six authors being common.

#2 Who is listed among the authors?

Basically, it’s simple: all of the authors must have substantially contributed to the creation of the article. These are often a PhD candidate or postdoc researcher and his or her supervisor – for example, a professor – and fellow researchers may also be included.

# 3 Is the order in which the authors’ names are listed important?

In most areas of research, the extent of involvement determines the order of authors’ names. The person who did the most work, often a PhD candidate or postdoc researcher, is the first author, this being the most important position. This is followed by the other fellow researchers, known as co-authors, in declining order of work contributed. The final position, however, is an important one and is reserved for the senior researcher under whose responsibility the research was done. This is often also the person who first thought of the idea of the study.

In some disciplines, such as mathematics for example, they make things easier by listing the authors alphabetically.

# 4 Where do the enormous differences in the number of authors’ names come from?

This is partly due to differences in the size of the study. A PhD candidate in law, philosophy or history often works alone on his or her subject. But a medical-genetics article frequently demands global collaboration. Such studies may often involve 30,000 patients and more than 100 research institutes. If two or three researchers from each institute are involved in the study, the numbers quickly add up.

In addition, cultural differences also determine the number of authors. A young researcher in law, for example, usually writes one monograph. It is very uncommon for his or her professor to be listed as the co-author of the monograph despite the professor’s supervisory role. Researchers in the areas of the exact sciences, medicine or social sciences, on the contrary, are more generous in sharing (or demanding) co-authorship.

#5 Why are doctors so eager to see their names listed on an article?

Review committees and academic financers tend to evaluate the quality of researchers on the basis of their academic publications. They do so by, for example, counting the number of their publications as well as the frequency with which other researchers refer to them. Thus, having many (co-)authorships is good for one’s evaluation – an important factor in the competitive areas of the exact sciences and medicine.

#6 Is that allowed?

Formally speaking, there are few rules about precisely how large one’s contribution must be to justify a co-authorship. Even the VSNU deals only briefly with this. The only thing stated by the integrity code advisory committee is that “authorship is recognised” and that “the usual regulations in the subject area are complied with”.

The Nijmeegse Middag van de Wetenschappelijke Integriteit starts at 12.30 on Wednesday 6 December in the Trigon building. The meeting is intended for everyone who is involved in research and publications. Please register via the website.

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