Authorship Credit: Thoughts for PhD Students and Faculty Mentors

Viswanath Venkatesh, who completed his PhD at the University of Minnesota, is a Distinguished Professor and Billingsley Chair at the University of Arkansas.

 

By Viswanath Venkatesh,
University of Arkansas

For all the hard work that PhD students and their collaborators, especially faculty members, put into research endeavors, authorship credit is vital to job searches, annual performance reviews, and may be even promotion and tenure. This brief is meant to be an education for PhD students about authorship and some guidelines that could be employed by faculty collaborators (or mentors or advisors) and PhD students to determine appropriate authorship credit. I do not intend for this brief to get into a discussion about the philosophies underlying authorship on papers from PhD dissertations but rather to share some thoughts and guidelines about collaborations between PhD students and their faculty mentors.

This brief was inspired by a panel in which I participated that included my University of Arkansas’ colleague, department chair and Bradberry chair, Dr. Rajiv Sabherwal, and our information systems PhD program director, Dr. Pankaj Setia—and an invitation by Dr. Varun Grover to share some thoughts on the topic that would benefit PhD students in particular. The panel discussion was free-flowing and I felt that, although useful, it would be too ad-hoc to form the basis of a structured article that put forth some principles and guidelines. Of course, as someone who has been involved in PhD education for over two decades, I had some strong views on it that surely come through in this brief. I felt a good starting point was to research what’s out there on this topic. I did a preliminary search and found several articles emerging from journals in medicine and allied disciplines. I then asked a PhD student/graduate assistant, Hamid Nikkhah, to conduct the search and share the articles with me. Note: In part, I mention these origins, inspirations and contributions to my thought process to note that it did not seem like these merited authorship credit, although they do merit acknowledgment for shaping my thinking. These articles, again primarily from journals in medicine and allied disciplines, with many from committees and/or editors’ notes, led me to some interesting viewpoints on this topic.

I will open with a scope of this brief, especially to identify aspects related to the broad topic of authorship that I will not address. Following that, the structure of the rest of this brief is: (a) definition of authorship; (b) principles governing authorship credit; (c) thoughts about what constitutes substantial contribution; and (d) suggestions for PhD programs.

Scope of this brief

This brief focuses squarely on authorship credit, particularly in collaborations with faculty members. Authorship is a broad topic and there are several aspects to it as one progresses through one’s career. After authorship credit, the next most general topic that has significant conversation is authorship order. I am specifically not addressing authorship order in this brief because it will require extensive treatment, especially given wide variations across fields—ranging from irrelevance in some fields (e.g., authorship is always alphabetical) to established norms (e.g., what forms the basis of first authorship) to appropriate ways of determining order of authors. Beyond authorship order, there are several issues related to authorship that merit discussion: evolving collaborations (as a student becomes a faculty member), long-standing collaborations (as a student becomes a more senior collaborator), one-off collaborations, contract killer collaborations (someone brought into do a specific task—e.g., a particular type of analysis—on a paper), collaborators dropping off, dyadic or triadic collaborations including students, big team collaborations including students, and list goes on.

Definition of authorship

A precise definition of authorship is rather elusive and there are variety of definitions, with the richest ones articulating conditions that must be met to merit authorship. In keeping with this, Brand (2008, p. 1003) almost wistfully noted: “There is no universally agreed definition of authorship, although attempts have been made… As a minimum, authors should take responsibility for a particular section of the study.” But, the most forceful attempts have been made by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, formally abbreviated as ICMJE (see Merrill 2015). The most recent of the ICMJE guidelines provide that all 4 of the following criteria need to be met: (1) substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work, or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; (2) drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; (3) final approval of the version to be published; and (4) agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

Upon reading these set of requirements, I was somewhat taken aback (Shaw 2011 offered a similar, perhaps even stronger, disagreement, albeit to an earlier set of guidelines from ICJME)—as I figured I did not deserve to be an author of some papers on which I am indeed listed as an author! How could all authors be responsible for all parts of a paper? It seemed restrictive and a high ask—particularly, as one thinks about medical journals where the articles can often be fairly short and have a long list of authors. Indeed, as I delved deeper into the many thoughts on this topic in medical journals, it became apparent that the issues they face are more complex than perhaps what is typically encountered in the social sciences given the imperative for a lab and grants in the medical field, but some aspects do resonate with the social sciences, especially business, given the importance of data and data ownership in today’s world of big data, purchased databases, and other proprietary sources of data available to a select few. Merrill (2015) noted that the Ecological Society of America (ESA) provides guidelines for authorship where any one of the following criteria is met: (1) conceived the ideas or experimental design; (2) participated actively in execution of the study; (3) analyzed and interpreted the data; or (4) wrote the manuscript.

There is a key difference between the ICJME and ESA criteria: AND vs. OR—all criteria vs. one of the criteria. Clearly, the latter definition (OR) is more inclusive in terms of what qualifies for authorship. Beyond this discussion, the social sciences have additional aspects that merit consideration for authorship—I will mention two of them here and address a larger set of issues in a section (later) on what constitutes substantial contribution: the role of ideas—perhaps unlike the medical sciences where studies tend to follow and build progressively, the social sciences may allow for significant ideation; and the role of theory and theoretical development—building theory is notoriously difficult and is a mix of art and science.

Beyond the issue of understanding what authorship is, it is important to recognize and avoid situations where some negative—read: unethical—behaviors surrounding authorship occur. These are: (1) gift authors and in some instances, these relate to guest authors; and (2) ghost authors (Hays 2010; Leopold 2013). Gift authorship, as the term suggests, is when someone receives authorship as a gift. This appears to occur in different situations and for different reasons—and the author who receives the gift is often a faculty member and typically a senior faculty member. The reasons appear to include respect, reputation (someone who may help the paper get accepted due to their name recognition), reciprocity (someone who is granted an authorship in exchange for reciprocally granting authorship on another paper—neither of which is deserved), and lab ownership, having grant money or financial resources or any resources (e.g., personnel) also appear to be reasons, although the latter set seems more likely an issue in the basic sciences, engineering and medicine. The matter of gift or guest appears to hinge more on the underlying reason for the authorship—but critically, both situations are when the person who is an author does not deserve to be an author. Ghost authors are those who, unfortunately, despite doing work and deserving of authorship do not actually receive the same. It is said to happen when students do a chunk of the work and/or writing but are not included as an author. Between gift vs. ghost authors, ghost authorship is a more serious problem because the cost to the ghosts—i.e., typically students—is much more serious in that they lose out on the benefits of work that they did perform.

Principles governing authorship credit

I offer five intertwined principles that should govern giving authorship credit:

Principle 1—[noabuse of] Power: As I contemplated key principles that should govern decisions surrounding giving authorship credit to PhD students, the first principle is vital and something we all know to be true: PhD students are at a distinct disadvantage and the power differential renders it nearly impossible for PhD students to get their due unless the faculty collaborators make it a point to give due credit to the students involved. Wagena (2005, p. 308) put it nicely: “The integrity of publications depends above all on the professional commitment to truth and honesty of senior researchers, since it seems unlikely that junior researchers can have much influence on authorship decisions.”

Principle 2—Honesty: Faculty collaborators should be honest. Honest throughout the process, that is. If the student is misled (even if implicitly or by observing other faculty-student collaborations) to believing authorship is coming and it does not, I would say that is dishonest too. If simple tasks (e.g., reference formatting, searches) are assigned and no expectations of authorship are created, that is honest. Perhaps the easiest way to ensure honesty is to inform the student [early] if authorship credit is coming or not, especially if it is not coming.

Principle 3—Fairness: Building on the principle of honesty is one of fairness. Substantial contribution should be fairly rewarded with authorship credit. Students should get credit when they deserve it and not receive gift authorship. Aside from these reasons for gift authorship mentioned earlier, one feeling that is prevalent is that students sometimes receive the gift of authorship to make their vita look stronger—although this may have benefits to the student (e.g., improve job prospects), advisor (e.g., better student placement) and even the institution based on the success of the student and faculty member, it is fundamentally unfair, unprofessional and, I would go so far as to say, unethical. Precious little is gained, both for student and faculty collaborator if a student receives what is perceived as a gift authorship—as that would be harmful to the reputation of the student and the faculty member.

Principle 4—Generosity: Faculty collaborators should be generous. Not generous in terms of granting authorship when it is not deserved—that would neither be honest nor fair. But generous in creating conditions for students to learn and earn authorship credit by making a substantial contribution.

Principle 5—Time [isn’t all that]: The flip side of being fair is that spending time alone does not mean authorship credit is deserved. By the very nature of the type of activities and stage of learning, PhD students typically spend a lot more time on a research project or paper than the faculty collaborator would. However, [a lot of] time spent is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for authorship—rather, again, it is about substantial contribution. There may be occasions where a faculty member spends but a few hours on the paper but because of expertise and experience can make critical contributions—e.g., appropriate story to tell, appropriate framing, appropriate theory to use, appropriate analysis—whose impact simply cannot be measured in terms of time spent.

Thoughts about what constitutes substantial contribution

A substantial contribution is about doing things that are crucial to a project/paper by engaging in activities that represent an intellectual contribution. Simply following orders without putting any thought into activities or simply following orders on activities that are devoid of any intellectual contribution is not a substantial contribution. Although it is difficult to exhaustively list all the activities that are and are not a substantial contribution, below are some activities that are typically a substantial contribution with some illustrations of exceptions within some of those activities:

Ideas: Generating ideas for questions to pursue, identifying gaps, and delineating a framework that guides the inquiry, including theory, method and/or analyses.

Theory: The development of the theory components (especially hypotheses) is often be the difference between a publishable product or not and is thus a critical contribution.

Designing and executing a study: Broadly speaking, the contribution here is to the method, be it a primary data collection or gathering data through secondary sources.

Providing or collecting data: This typically involves a resource and intellectual contribution to the data collection effort. However, simply following a protocol and gathering the data (e.g., overseeing a lab protocol in which the student does not participate in any intellectual part of the design, noted earlier) does not constitute a substantial contribution.

Analysis: Conducting the data analysis or engaging in analytical components—i.e., empirical or analytical modeling—can be vital if the student is engaging in some creative action. Simply following an analysis script and/or subsequently creating tables that go into a paper does not constitute a substantial contribution.

Writing a draft: I have always maintained that it is the best papers, not the best research, that get published. To me, this means writing the paper—actually, crafting the story—is a vital part. The student can a substantial contribution here—granted that it is quite likely that the story and framing are likely to be set up the more experienced, i.e., faculty member—by executing the vision effectively.

Processing reviews and crafting a revision strategy: Seldom does a paper make it into a journal as it is originally written. Revisions, and often many rounds of revisions, are essential to converting the initial paper into one that is accepted for publication. That transformation involves carefully processing the reviews (including the editors’ reports) and creating a revision strategy that can then be executed. It is nearly impossible to ever address all comments in all reviews, and sorting through them and developing the strategy/plan to create a revised, publishable paper (or one that moves in that direction) is perhaps even more difficult than writing the original paper. Students learn more than they contribute in this phase but as the execution of a revision strategy involves one or more of the previous six ways to make a contribution, a student can make a substantial contribution as a paper progresses through rounds of revision.

Beyond the above thoughts that directly relate to making a substantial contribution, there are three key things that may be revealing about whether a student has made a significant contribution—these may be tests that can be applied by the faculty collaborator and/or student, with those noted in 9 and 10 below being particularly subjective:

  1. Independence: Did the student work on intellectual and/or important tasks independently? The independence aspect is crucial and may make authorship a given if that is the case. Decision making on key aspects comes with independence. As a student progresses through the PhD program, independence in key activities may be “allowed” by the faculty collaborator and a student may deliver.
  2. A sense of pride: If a student expects to get credit, it should stand to reason that the student should take pride in the work that he or she has done, no matter what level the publication is—be it a regional conference or a premier journal publication. If the student does not feel pride, it may be that the contribution was not substantial.
  3. A sense of ownership: Although it is nice if a student has a sense of pride surrounding a paper, more important in practical terms is whether the student feels that he or she is simply part of a faculty member’s paper, that may suggest the contribution is limited. But, if the role is substantial, the student will feel a sense of ownership of the paper such that he or she feels an ownership of at least part of the paper and is accountable for that part of the paper—credit comes with potential for blame and criticism: adapting the words of the legendary Stan Lee, “with great credit comes great responsibility.” But a true sense of ownership [and pride] will make the student focus on most or all aspects of the paper and be interested in all aspects of the paper [regardless of what his or her role is] because that is how an owner would feel.

Suggestions for PhD programs

PhD students are new to the world of academic articles and associated authorship. The following five suggestions are for PhD programs to educate students about authorship (students should feel free to suggest this to the faculty director of the program or a faculty member):

Suggestion 1—Readings about authorship: Students should read articles about authorship and understand what constitutes appropriate credit.

Suggestion 2—Foster discussions about authorship: Faculty members should foster a discussion and encourage students to ask questions to understand what constitutes authorship credit. The inherent nature of the power differential will typically make students reluctant to call for or participate in such discussions so faculty initiative is critical. Faculty members can also share their experiences and stories—both good and bad. Some articles have exercises (e.g., Shaw 2016; Zachariah et al. 2013) and those could serve as good learning tools to illustrate what constitutes substantial contribution and what does not.

Suggestion 3—Discuss authorship credit during collaboration endeavors: Faculty members should discuss authorship credit in their collaborations with students. This should happen throughout the course of the project and papers—say once every few months not only so the roles and responsibilities and concomitant credit is appropriately allocated, but also to help students understand authorship credit. In doing so, faculty members and PhD students will be well served to keep in mind the five principles and thoughts about substantial contributions that were discussed earlier.

Suggestion 4—Consider including statements about student contributions in papers: Perhaps controversial but specific statements about contributions made by PhD students in publications could be included as a legend in papers. For example, a statement could be: “Student X contributed to the collection and analysis of the data.” Such statements may in fact help students because it will make their contribution both believable and delineate the basis of their authorship credit in the eyes of the world.

Suggestion 5—Encourage students to form their own philosophy: Through dialog and experiences, encourage students to form their philosophy about authorship. Although much has been written about authorship, surely, each of us has a view on what we believe constitutes authorship credit, which may or may not align with any specific view out there, and may actually be derived from an assortment of others’ views and articles. Likewise, students should know that they have the right to form their views on authorship credit and, of course, recognize that it may evolve over time.

Summary

The objective of this brief was to explain the concept of authorship by delineating some characteristics of when a PhD student (or anyone for that matter) deserves authorship on a paper. Noting that this is accomplished when a substantial contribution is made, in addition to defining some characteristics of what constitutes a substantial contribution, some principles governing how faculty members should operate and some suggestions for PhD programs are offered. The Table summarizes the key points. Although the focus of this brief was on authorship credit for PhD students, students in particular should realize that collaborative works with faculty members, especially in the early stages of the program, are about the learning experiences that they afford. Learning opportunities can create the conditions of long-term success such that authorship credit on one paper here or there in the early stages will hardly matter. That said, this is not to suggest that faculty members should not worry about giving students authorship credit—rather, faculty members should create conditions for students to earn authorship credit by making a substantial contribution while learning the skills needed for long-term success.

 

Authorship credit Requires making a substantial contribution
Principles governing authorship credit Principle 1—[no  abuse of] Power

Principle 2—Honesty

Principle 3—Fairness

Principle 4—Generosity

Principle 5—Time [isn’t all that]

Thoughts about what constitutes substantial contribution 1. Ideas

2. Theory

3. Designing and executing a study

4. Providing or collecting data

5. Analysis

6. Writing a draft

7. Processing reviews and crafting revision strategy

8. Independence

9. A sense of pride

10. A sense of ownership

Suggestions for PhD programs Suggestion 1—Readings about authorship

Suggestion 2—Foster discussions about authorship

Suggestion 3—Discuss authorship credit during collaboration endeavors

Suggestion 4—Consider including statements about student contributions in papers

Suggestion 5—Encourage students to form their own philosophy

 

References

Brand, R. A. 2008. “Thoughts on Authorship,” Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research (466), pp. 1002-1005.

Hays, J. C. 2010. “A Primer on the Responsibilities and Abuses of Scientific Authorship,” Public Health Nursing (27:6), pp. 471-473.

Leopold, S. S. 2013. “Research is a Team Sport: Updated Authorship Guidelines for CORR®,” Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research (471), pp. 701-702.

Merrill, E. 2015. “Sensitivity and Integrity of Authorship,” The Journal of Wildlife Management (79:2), pp. 171-173.

Shaw, D. 2011. “The ICMJE’s Definition of Authorship is Illogical and Unethical,” British Medical Journal (343:d7192), pp. 1-2.

Shaw, D. 2016. “The Trojan Citation and the “Accidental” Plagiarist,” Bioethical Inquiry (13), pp. 7-9.

Wagena, E. J. 2005. “The Scandal of Unfair Behaviour of Senior Faculty,” Journal of Medical Ethics (31:5), pp. 308.

Zachariah, R., Reid, T., Van den Bergh, R., Dahmane, A., Kosgei, R. J., Hinderaker, S. G., Tayler-Smith, K., Manzi, M., Kizito, W., Khogali, M., Kumar, A. M. V., Baruani, B., Bishinga, A., Kilale, A. M., Nqobili, M., Patten, G., Sobry, A., Cheti, E., Nakanwagi, A., Enarson, D. A., Edginton, M. E., Upshur, R., and Harries, A. D. 2013. “Applying the ICMJE Authorship Criteria to Operational Research in Low-income Countries: The Need to Engage Programme Managers and Policy Makers,” Tropical Medicine and International Health (18:8), pp. 1025-1028. Managers and Policy Makers,” Tropical Medicine and International Health (18:8), pp. 1025-1028

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Viswanath Venkatesh, who completed his PhD at the University of Minnesota, is a Distinguished Professor and Billingsley Chair at the University of Arkansas. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential scholars in business and economics, both in terms of premier journal publications and citations (e.g., Thomson Reuters’ highlycited.com, Emerald Citations, SSRN). His research focuses on understanding the diffusion of technologies in organizations and society. His favorite project focuses on improving the quality of life of the poorest of the poor in India—which he has presented in various forums including at the United Nations. The sponsorship of his research has been about US$10M. His work has appeared in leading journals in human-computer interaction, information systems, organizational behavior, psychology, marketing, medical informatics, and operations management. His works have been cited over 76,000 times (Google Scholar) and 21,000 times (Web of Science). He developed and maintains an IS research rankings web site that has received many accolades from the academic community including AIS’ Technology Legacy Award. He has served in editorial roles in various journals. He is a Fellow of the Association of Information Systems and the Information Systems Society, INFORMS.

Viswanath Venkatesh, who completed his PhD at the University of Minnesota, is a Distinguished Professor and Billingsley Chair at the University of Arkansas.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Viswanath Venkatesh, who completed his PhD at the University of Minnesota, is a Distinguished Professor and Billingsley Chair at the University of Arkansas. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential scholars in business and economics, both in terms of premier journal publications and citations (e.g., Thomson Reuters’ highlycited.com, Emerald Citations, SSRN). His research focuses on understanding the diffusion of technologies in organizations and society. His favorite project focuses on improving the quality of life of the poorest of the poor in India—which he has presented in various forums including at the United Nations. The sponsorship of his research has been about US$10M. His work has appeared in leading journals in human-computer interaction, information systems, organizational behavior, psychology, marketing, medical informatics, and operations management. His works have been cited over 76,000 times (Google Scholar) and 21,000 times (Web of Science). He developed and maintains an IS research rankings web site that has received many accolades from the academic community including AIS’ Technology Legacy Award. He has served in editorial roles in various journals. He is a Fellow of the Association of Information Systems and the Information Systems Society, INFORMS.

Updated: July 17, 2018 — 5:57 pm

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