Whose scientific work is it anyway? Knowledge production in the socially constructed fuzzy authorship

George Lăzăroiu
Published online: 12 Jul 2020

1.  Introduction

Authorship is typically employed as the supporting evidence for the assessment of research output, shaping career advancement and rewards, and  constituting  a highly regarded commodity in  an intensely competitive scientific environment (Smith et al., 2019). Established principles concerning the character and ethical  consequences  of  scientific  contribution  are  being  questioned by progresses in collaboration and multi-authorship. The latter has proliferated to such a level in certain research communities that the reliability of the scientific publication system has been contested. Reported and confirmed misconducts (e.g. honorific authorship) have grave repercussions with respect to the recognition of authority, sharing out the credit, and designating responsibility (Cronin, 2001). Multi-authorship on publications increases  the  credit  allocated  for  the created knowledge and splits the accountability for its trustworthiness. A great number of institutions and research councils demand that researchers supply reports of their role in multi- authored work when  assessed  in promotion,  tenure,    and funding assessments (Larivi’ere et al., 2016).

The public records of  the authorship  issue  are abundant in  half-truths  and inconsistencies.  A  lot of scholars have suspected that William Shakespeare did not write the theatrical work long credited to him, the main candidates being Edward de Vere and  Sir  Francis  Bacon,  while  more than fifty others have also been suggested. As in other cases, the Shakespeare conundrum can be elucidated only by clarifying what information is plausible, reconsidering approaches, and invalidating deceptive leads (Shapiro, 2009). The European philosophical tradition, as Whitehead puts it, ‘consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’, and not as ‘the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings’, but taking into account ‘the wealth  of general ideas scattered through them’ (Whitehead, 1979, p. 39).

2.  Unjustified authorship as research misconduct

Authorship and contributorship constitute pivotal features of scientific publishing. Each scholar listed as an author has responsibilities and can be faced with charges for the work as indicated in contributorship statements. It has been debatable whether animals  should  receive  appreciation for their contribution to scientific research through credit  in  publications.  Some  animals  have been listed as formal co-authors,  although their  role in research  is unclear. Famous  instances of co-authorship of animals include: F.D.C. Willard, a cat,  with  the  physicist  and mathematician  Jack  Hetherington,  Galadriel  Mirkwood,  a  dog,  with  the  immunologist  Polly  Matzinger,

H.A.M.S. ter Tisha, a hamster, with the physicist Andre Geim,  and  Wamba  K,  Wamba  P,  and  Wamba N, three bonobos, with the primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. In May 2019, Jessica Schleider (Stony Brook University) was applying for a $100,000 grant when  she thought  a  break  was  needed  from  proof-reading  and  went  out  for  a  walk.  In  the  meantime,  her  cat,  Mochi, decided to get some shuteye on the open laptop and involuntarily pressed ‘submit’ on the grant application, operation that was fortunately successful. In #LapDogsAreNotCoauthors, Sherri Rose (Harvard Medical School) noted that despite witnessing her writing  a  scientific  article,  her  dog Polo did not satisfy authorship requirements. As an April Fool’s joke, in 2014 American Physical Society reported that it would make all papers single-authored by cats open access,  aiming  to reflect upon allowing publication by dogs pretty soon. Papers co-authored by  animals  do  not clarify who did what as regards the published work, but possibly the human researchers  conducted portions or the entire research by interacting with or  being  intellectually  stimulated  by their pets. There is no evidence that animals have extensively generated the  crystallization  of  critical ideas, but in some instances such companions may have contributed  to  a  relaxing  or  fruitful state of mind without being listed  as  co-authors.  The  pertinent  way  of  taking  into account animals’ legitimate role in scientific articles  should  be  the  Acknowledgements  section, but such addition of contributions is challenging as a significant number of journals ask that individuals who are praised confirm in writing such recognition, unless they participated in basic science and preclinical research, and thus no expression of gratitude can offset  their  suffering (Erren et al., 2017).

Last year, a South Korean education ministry report exemplified 11 scholars who had credited high-school or middle-school-aged children as co-authors on publications that the latter supposedly did not contribute to, bringing the entire number suspected  to  17,  and  the whole  amount of scientific articles having unjustified authorship to 24 (out of a total of 794 papers having child co-authors, with 549 being peer reviewed), since the practice was initially made public in late 2017. The children seemed to have been listed on papers to increase their prospects of winning fiercely competed university places. There were several situations in which a child was admitted into university after mentioning in their application an apparently questionable co-authorship (Zastrow, 2019).

Can peer reviewers be credited as co-authors? Initially, a manuscript is generally presented in a draft form at a conference or more. Then, after collecting various comments from the audience,  the author submits it to a scholarly journal. If it passes initial desk assessment by the editor, the manuscript will be sent out to at least two peer reviewers. Sometimes, it ends  up  by  being  rejected, and thus possibly submitted again to the same journal, after making all the requested improvements, or to another outlet that will ask at least two experts to act  as  peer  reviewers. Maybe the manuscript is still not good enough after many rounds of peer review from the two journals and thus the author have to submit it to a third one that, after asking for several revisions, decides it is worth to be published. The final paper may be much different now from the original draft and perhaps it misrepresents some of the core  ideas  the  author  had  initially  in  mind, but s/he needs a swift publication and thus nothing else matters. Sometimes the peer reviewers carefully copyedit and proofread the manuscript while simultaneously possibly altering the original ideas by providing numerous alternative phrasings in the narrative arguably in the interest of clarity, conciseness, accuracy, and cohesiveness. Author services provided by journals, especially through translation and language editing, can  also  shape  the  meaning  of  original  ideas. The author’s scientific contribution may be minor in  the  end,  especially  as  a  lot  of  the  ideas incorporated in the text already belong to  the  cited  authors  or  to  the  people  who attended the conference(s) and made influential suggestions. Some sources are not clearly traceable (and definitely not citable), as pieces of thoughts  (turned lately  into  fully  developed ideas)  can come through various discussions with colleagues, while surfing online without purpose or watching scientifically unrelated television items, etc. In most situations when a source is mentioned, it is difficult to discern whether the interpretation belongs to  the  commenter  or  to  the cited author. Some time ago I received a manuscript for consideration and among the reviewers I included the scholar whose work was debated. He accepted all the comments made  by  the author, while the other three reviewers indicated that the paper had to  be  rejected  for  grave  errors in understanding the topic. I define predatory authors as persons who submit their manuscripts (sometimes to several journals simultaneously) without having the intention to publish them but to collect comments from the peer reviewers, and sometimes have their research copyedited and proofread, planning in fact to have the such improved version considered by a top-tier  journal  (Jackson et  al.,  2018;  Lăzăroiu,  2017;  Lăzăroiu et  al.,  2019).

3.  Assessing credit and responsibility in the case of multi-authorship

In certain scientific disciplines, contributors are displayed alphabetically, but in others, authorship order is expected to indicate the volume of work dedicated to the research project, shaping the positive result of grant applications and tenure  assessments:  the  most  preferred  positions  are  first author (typically the scholar who performed most of the experiments) and last author, who supposedly was the cerebral inspiration behind the project (Carpenter & Fritz-Laylin, 2013). The character of research is variable, with growing involvement by nonprofessionals. Citizen scientists supply all or a relevant quantity of the data in natural science research via online platforms without being listed as co-authors, although researchers may  be able to  publish important findings  only due to such input. With a little concession as regards authorship criteria, scientific fraud can be deterred and the contributions of each person who was instrumental in the research can be adequately recognized (Ward-Fear et al., 2020).

Hyperauthorship has altered and disintegrated the notion of  authorship  having a distinct  value. The shift to progressively long author lists on scientific articles is not viable, while also undermining the whole system by which scholarly work is recognized. As a rule, academic publications have constituted the highest level of performance in the scholarly world, justifiably being the chief channel for researchers to  make public their  discoveries to each other and  to the  public. Decisions concerning hiring and  academic  career  advancement  are  also  established  mainly  on scholars’ publication records. Scientific articles are to a  greater  extent  collaborative,  and  a  large amount of authors can increase their reach, readership, and citations (even negative ones count positively). Long author lists are sometimes a recipe to manipulate the impact of separate articles, or to boost each author’s publication lists, and thus it would be more difficult for universities and funding agencies to evaluate researchers taking into account such records. If identical rules for measuring academic productivity are employed across fields, disciplines where single authors or smaller groups are still the standard would be disadvantaged. Publishing  in  high-energy physics is predominantly carried out by large  teams connecting a number of institutions  and even countries, whereas in biomedicine, the likelihood of fraud, data integrity, and quality control is more scrutinized – particularly  as regards  the  listing  as authors of  persons who  have  not worked on the project. It is thus difficult to assess credit when co-authorship is in hundreds     and thousands. A growing reliance on data results in more teamwork and less work performed by individual scholars even in the humanities. Including students and other collaborators in the Acknowledgements section and not in the author list constitutes  an  alternative  to  the  current  way authorship is attributed. Authors in significantly large collaborations can only credit the title of the shared project. Universities and funding entities  cannot  keep  relying  on  publication  records and generally citations constitute the prevailing measures for  scientific  achievements,  while teamwork should be more actively rewarded adequately (Priego, 2015).

Universities aiming to recruit or to rank scholars typically attribute credit scores to their scientific output. Even by employing use indexes, assessing co-authored papers is challenging. Co- authors could specify how they carried out their activity in producing the research, but they may recurrently bias their answers. As regards scholarly assessment, and when specific information  about each author’s contribution is lacking, a multi-authored scientific article is counted in most cases as  one paper for each co-author (in percents).  Multi-authorship enables some researchers to publish collectively, but is also a veritable asset, accelerating publication by facilitating a concrete division of labor among scholars. If a scientific article has been produced by two or more researchers, the problem that the paper intends to elucidate is either too  complex to be managed by an individual author, or the paper requires various abilities and knowledge that are uncommonly identifiable in just one person. Sometimes specialized co-authors can produce a scientific article that is implausible to be written by only one researcher, as each of them has spent a lot of time to gain significant expertise in a specific field.  Beyond  doubt,  working  simultaneously results in better papers by the cooperation between specialized co-authors. Unfortunately, in certain disciplines where the order of co-authors complies with certain  rules,  all  researchers listed on the scientific article are not equal in terms of recognition for the work performed (de Mesnard, 2017).

4.  Reconsidering the notion of authorship as regards large-scale collaborations

The most noticeable evidence of the shift to teamwork and the growing division of labor are (inter)national co-authorship levels. In biomedicine and high-energy physics, the amount of collaborators occasionally is in the hundreds, whereas in the humanities sole authorship is still the standard. The magnitude and complexity of projects are undeniably beyond the expertise of a person or a small team, necessitating professionally-managed groups of frequently worldwide-distributed scholars assisted by cutting-edge research infrastructures. Some people whose names are listed as co-authors may have (almost) no contribution to  the  work  reported,  while  others, who have had a significant concrete role  in  collected  data  and/or  analysis,  are  not  included or are mentioned in the Acknowledgments section. The acknowledgment has slowly but surely established itself as a vitally important component of academic  writing,  offering  a  clarifying  insight into the character and level of sub-authorship collaboration. The latter appears in acknowledgment statements, frequently compound entities. Acknowledgment data are neglected in sociometric analyses of scientific communication as they are not machine-searchable and analyzable. Length and particularity of acknowledgment have been fleshed out over time because authors plausibly endeavor to express gratitude to any persons who might have contributed somehow to the final draft of the manuscript (Cronin et al., 2003). A physics article having 5,154 authors, published in 2015 in Physical Review Letters, includes the largest volume of contributors  ever to a single scientific article. The paper is 33 pages long: the first 9 pages, plus references,  present the research itself, while the other 24 pages include the authors and their institutional affiliations. In 2008, a scientific article on the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider  at  CERN was the first research to top 3,000 authors (Castelvecchi, 2015).

The increase of author numbers on scientific articles has been influenced by (inter)national research-assessment routines and shaped by the rise of expanded and shared science, furthered by groundbreaking technologies that are redesigning the research landscape. By only inspecting  a paper it is difficult to discern who did what. Cutting-edge manuscript-submission software may assist authors to designate contributor roles  quite  smoothly  in  structured  formats  throughout  the operations of developing and publishing a scientific article. For authors, the capacity to more clearly report their specific contributions may enable teamwork and data sharing by facilitating others to identify the researcher who supplied a certain piece of data  or  statistical  analysis.  Scholars can start to surpass authorship as the prevailing measure of recognition by the endorsement of distinct contributions that are key to the appointment and promotion process  in  academic institutions. Consequently, journals would identify the most suitable peer reviewers. For funding agencies, improved information and superior accuracy concerning the contributions of grant applicants may be decisive in the decision-making process, while facilitating automated evaluation of the role and feasible outputs of researchers being funded. More transparency may be decisive in decreasing the volume of authorship controversies being handled by journal editors, reducing the time they spend pursuing listed authors for validation of  their  contributions (Allen et al., 2014).

5.  Conclusions

Authorship represents the routine of a scholarly career for which the amount of scientific articles researchers publish indicates resourcefulness, performance, and impact. To prevent coercive authorship habits and disproportionate publication records, academic outlets ask authors to precisely specify their intellectual  contributions.  As  research  complexity  advances  necessitating larger multi-disciplinary groups, authorship lists are expanding, and thus journals stipulate that corresponding authors mention each scholar’s contribution to confirm justifiable recognition through authorship or acknowledgment (Patience et al., 2019). Co-authorship represents a plausible proxy for collaboration as a small number of scholars surrender credit  for  their  scientific  articles without reserve, and consequently sharing of authorship denotes a concrete involvement. Such publication data are immediately accessible, concern numerous countries and research disciplines significantly, and have coherent consistency throughout decades. Some of the ascending trend in multi-authorship is not typical teamwork but develops from independent contributions      to collective endeavors, generally as data that entail only insubstantial intellectual partnership (Adams, 2012).

Research assessment procedures should be more flexible, taking into account the dynamic (cumulative and integrative) value of scientific products. Significant  and  influential  input  from  peer reviewers should  be clearly attributed to  them, maybe  in a note  or, if extensive comments  are provided, such researchers can be listed as co-authors  of  the  scientific  articles.  Sometimes, peer reviewers or other people involved in the research process (e.g. citizen scientists) contribute more in terms of collected data and analysis than some of the co-authors. Unjustified authorship  is research misconduct, while the notion of authorship  as  regards  large-scale  collaborations  should be reconsidered in terms of credit and responsibility.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).


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Author Information

George Lăzăroiu, Ph.D.,  is  a  senior  research  fellow  at  the  Institute  of  Smart  Big  Data  Analytics,  New  York  City,  and an associate professor in communication sciences at Spiru Haret University, Bucharest. His books are  indexed  in  EBSCO and in more than 2,000 library catalogs. He has published more than 50 articles indexed  in  the  Web  of  Science, and book chapters with Springer, Routledge, Palgrave Macmillan, and Sense. He has reviewed articles for journals published by Taylor & Francis, Elsevier, Wiley, SAGE, and Emerald. He has presented papers at conferences organized by Harvard University, Western Michigan University, University of Glasgow, Queen’s University Belfast, Paris-Sorbonne University, Philipp University of Marburg, Wuhan University, etc. He has coordinated the translation  of more than 3,000 pages authored by Richard Swinburne, Edward Zalta, Joseph Raz, Nicholas  Rescher,  Dale  Jacquette, Hartley Slater, etc.

George Lăzăroiu, The Institute of Smart Big Data Analytics, New York City, NY, USA; Spiru  Haret  University,  Bucharest, Romania.  phd_lazaroiu@yahoo.com

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Full Citation Information:
George Lăzăroiu (2020): Whose scientific work is it anyway? Knowledge
production in the socially constructed fuzzy authorship, Educational Philosophy and Theory, DOI: