Friday, 24 July 2009

Authorship of journal papers

The Co-operative Network of Building Researchers list, cnbr-l, saw a fresh enquiry today about authorship of journal papers. I was interested that the person who prompted the enquiry appears to be a rock climber. The essence of this question was this, I’d like to invite discussion of the (possibly contentious) issue of authorship of (journal) papers in construction management – particularly who is named as authors, and in what order, when PhD candidates or other new scholars write papers. This is an issue on which I have strong views, so I responded thus:

You raise a useful and interesting question. My own view is that authorship should not be simply a right of those in authority to have their name on things whether they contributed to them or not. For what it is worth, here is how I put it in a chapter of a recent book:

One worrying aspect of authorship is the question of whether all the authors actually contributed to the writing of the text in the paper. There are different traditions in different areas of science. For example, in some sciences, the head of the institution, the head of the research team, the technicians who provided the resources to enable the research are all cited as joint authors, even though they may have contributed none of the text. In other areas, only those who directly contributed text would be listed as authors. The latter tends to be the case in construction management, although there are some notable exceptions. Because we operate with different assumptions, there is confusion around this issue, and all authors should clarify who will be listed, and in what sequence, before they begin work on their papers, to avoid divisive and difficult arguments later in the process. One alternative to joint authorship, for someone who is not actually an author, is to include mention of them in the acknowledgements (Hughes, W.P. (2008) Getting your research published in refereed journals. In: Knight, A. and Ruddock, L (eds). Advanced Research Methods in the Built Environment, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 193-206)

To answer your questions directly, my opinion is that PhD students should be encouraged to write sole author papers, and it is the responsibility of the supervisor to help structure the paper, comment on drafts, and help see it through the publication process, in the role of supervisor, not in the role of co-author. But I know that this is not everyone’s preference. If a supervisor actually writes part of the paper, then of course that would justify co-authorship. However, in any serious evaluation of one person’s contribution to the field, such as a promotion panel, it is common to ask the candidate to indicate what percentage of each co-authored paper was contributed specifically by the candidate. This avoids any need to develop an algorithm for assessing the strength of authorship when there are multiple authors (as suggested by another respondent to your question).

This question is not a “construction management” issue, but an issue across all the sciences. You might be interested in a broader discussion here: where I particularly liked the opening sentence, “Studies of authorship in science suggest that traditional criteria for authorship no longer reflect the way research is actually done. Although published guidelines on authorship have existed for decades, investigations reveal that they are not followed consistently, and many researchers remain unaware of them.” I think many of us are unaware of the guidelines that already exist, and we are in danger of re-inventing the wheel, yet again! In the biomedical arena, for example, an “author” is generally considered to be someone who has made substantive intellectual contributions to a published study (

My advice is that all authors should clarify who will be listed, and in what sequence, before they begin work on their papers, to avoid divisive and difficult arguments later in the process. To help PhD students in such discussions with their supervisors, the links to more established sciences may be of use. And I think you are right to suggest that professors do not need lots of co-authored papers on their CVs, especially conference papers.

By the way, another horror story about authorship – what about those thrusting young academics who make informal agreements to add each other’s names to all of their papers, even when they have not actually contributed, exchanging multiple authorships as favours just to pad out their CVs? Do you think that actually happens? Is it ethical? What should a journal editor do on discovering such “phantom” authorships?

I hope this helps, and I look forward to other opinions on this thorny issue.

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