Who can be included as a co-author of a paper?

Case: The author submitted a manuscript to a journal and received an editorial decision of “accept with major revisions.” The reviewers had recommended conducting some fresh experiments and analyses for the paper to be accepted. The revisions involved a hefty amount of rework, but the author managed to make all the switches mentioned with the help of two of his colleagues and ultimately submitted the revised manuscript on time. Since the author felt that he would not have been able to make the revisions without his colleagues’ help, he determined to give them due credit and added their names as co-authors to his manuscript.

However, he was astonished when the editor reverted a few days later questioning the addition of the fresh co-authors. He/she desired to know how the freshly added co-authors had contributed to the paper. The editor also suggested that in case they did not fulfil the authorship criteria recommended by ICMJE, their names should be included in the acknowledgements section, and not as co-authors.

The author then contacted us and asked us to help identify whether the added co-authors fulfilled the requirements of the authorship criteria.

Act: We asked the author in detail about the nature of the contribution made by each of the two freshly added co-authors. The author replied that the very first of the two added co-authors had done the entire statistical analysis and helped in interpretation of data in the light of the extra analysis. He had also helped in rewriting a specific section of the manuscript.

The 2nd person who had been added as an author had procured some essential reagents that were required for some crucial experiments that the author had conducted during revision.

Based on the authorship criteria defined by ICMJE, our publication experienced came to the conclusion that the very first of the two persons qualified as an author because he had

  • contributed to the analysis and interpretation of data for the probe
  • revised the manuscript draft to incorporate the extra findings 
  • given his final approval for the work to be published and had agreed to be accountable for the work.

However, the contribution of the 2nd person was not sufficient to qualify for authorship. The 2nd person had just helped in procuring reagents; he had neither helped in acquiring data nor played any significant role in analysing or revising the manuscript. So, we suggested that his name should be included in the acknowledgements section, and not as a co-author.

The author agreed with our views and wrote to the editor mentioning that he would add only one person as a co-author while the other person’s name would be added in the acknowledgements section. He also explicitly mentioned the nature of the contribution that each person had made. The editor was persuaded with this arrangement and the manuscript was sent for publication.

Summary: According to the ICMJE guidelines, authorship is based on the following criteria:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for significant intellectual content; AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • 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.

Not all journals specifically ask to mention author contributions: a contributorship statement is not mandatory for all journals, but it is generally considered a good practice to list the individual contributions of authors in the cover letter. However, in case you are submitting a revised manuscript and you have made any switches to the author list, you should certainly provide an explanation of the nature of this author’s contribution in order to avoid further complications.

You might also benefit from knowing Who qualifies to be an author?

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