Allocating Credit for Authorship - From Novice to Expert - Writing as Professional Development

Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools that Support Scholars’ Success - Mary Renck Jalongo, Olivia N. Saracho 2016

Allocating Credit for Authorship
From Novice to Expert
Writing as Professional Development

A university faculty member talked at length about the expectation that, after chairing a dissertation and devoting considerable time to helping the student fashion a publishable research article, the program graduate seemed reluctant to list the advisor as second author. Although the advisor felt this expectation had been communicated prior to embarking on the task and again at the conclusion, the situation had not been resolved:

it would not really matter that much whether I had one more article for publication or not…what mattered was that I thought that, just for professional growth, I should remind her of what we have discussed. But then, personally, it makes me very uncomfortable to ask…I struggled quite a bit and then I had to consult my colleagues [and one said] “You know, sometimes students… they just don’t know. You just have to remind them,” so I did…I sent her an email and …I haven’t heard back from her — this is very recent — I told her either way, your choice, you have to ask yourself are you comfortable? And if you disagree with me, I won’t hold any negative opinions toward you, but I realize that we have different opinions toward this authorship or collaboration…I would be uncomfortable just to let it go and instead I shared my thoughts with her. (Jalongo, 2013b, p. 79)

Two things are noteworthy here. First, the dissertation advisor consulted with colleagues about it to get multiple opinions about the ethical course of action. Second, even though the situation was disturbing and awkward, the advisor felt an obligation to educate the advisee about ways to determine credit for authorship. The simple fact is that inexperienced, desperate, and/or unscrupulous authors often underestimate or overestimate the contributions of others to a manuscript.

When judging contributions to published work, there is a definite hierarchy. Conceptualization comes first, followed by amount of writing produced, and finally, other work completed to support the project (e.g., locating articles, entering data). So, if you are a graduate assistant and your professor designs a study and writes the article while you search for related articles and type the interview transcripts into NVivo, your contribution would be appropriately handled as an acknowledgement. The reason for this is that your work has been close to clerical while the professor’s work relied on high level thinking and highly specialized expertise. You may have logged many hours on the project but you did not conceptualize the research or actually write the manuscript; you provided support services, you were compensated for the work, and you can lay no claim to ownership/authorship. So, just as a professional typist may prepare a dissertation and have no expectation of being an author, a graduate assistant who merely enters data for a project that was designed, conducted, and written by someone else is not an author either. There have been numerous lawsuits over the years concerning conflicting expectations for authorship from students and faculty, and although some students surely have been exploited by faculty, as long as they were paid to do the work that supported a project, they tend to lose the case seeking recognition as an author.

This same hierarchy applies when faculty are working together. To illustrate, two departmental colleagues met briefly to discuss the possibility of co-authoring a manuscript. There was no plan, just a conversation about a shared area of interest. In early December, one of the faculty members returned home and spoke with her former dissertation advisor. He edited a national newsletter and he invited her to submit a manuscript on the topic for a particular audience; however, it would need to be submitted very quickly to be included in a thematic issue. This meant that much of the work would have to be accomplished during the spring break. Her potential co-author was traveling throughout the break and indicated that she did not have time to do any work on it; however, after the manuscript was successfully published, she was irate. Even though her colleague had conceptualized the article and had written every word herself, she persisted in the belief that she should have been a co-author merely because they had talked about writing together.

Where credit for authorship is concerned, writing is more important than talking. Everyone listed as an author should have made a significant contribution to designing the work and/or to actually generating portions of the manuscript. A person should not be listed as an author as a “courtesy” or “favor”; for example, if a dean’s only involvement with a grant is to sign off on the proposal, he or she is not an author. People who merely facilitated the project should be recognized through an acknowledgement rather than co-authorship. A guiding principle in all of this is the definition of authorship that was discussed earlier; remember that there were two key elements: being the originator of the work and being responsible for the content of the manuscript. Stated plainly, anyone listed as an author should be very familiar with the work and capable of fielding questions about it. It does not matter if these people are personal friends or supervisors. Someone who is barely familiar with the work cannot be expected to do this. Giving credit where it is not due is just as egregious as neglecting to give credit when it is due.

Even experienced faculty members are sometimes surprised to learn that manuscript style guides, such as the American Psychological Association Manual, include a discussion of how to determine credit for authors. For example, I recently worked with a former doctoral student on a book about autism spectrum disorders and my support of the project was to write one chapter of the nine and generally coach her on how to write a book. When it was time to determine credit, my suggestion was that my name be put on that one chapter and that she would be the book author. The title page would read Tricia Shelton with Mary Jalongo rather than and so that it would be clear I am not the expert here. One of the best indicators of ethical behavior is the faculty member’s reputation across and outside of the university. Check up on people. When you have a choice of co-authors, prefer those individuals who will work at relatively thankless, uncompensated tasks rather than limiting his or her contributions to high visibility projects with a price tag attached. Do not allow affability to sway you into thinking that a collaborator will behave in a principled fashion where scholarly achievements are concerned. As one former chairperson used to say, “Tenure and promotion pressures can change people” and, I might add, not necessarily for the better.

So, how do three people who worked on a research project decide whose name goes first?

It depends (Hayter et al. 2013). You need to discuss credit for authorship candidly and decide if someone did more of the conceptualization and writing. If so, that person would be listed first. Furthermore, if one person started out as the leader and, for a variety of reasons, did not follow through, then a renegotiation is in order. What if authors write together and all agree that each contributed equally to the manuscript? Arranging the names alphabetically sometimes implies that the first author did more of the work. Under these circumstances, a notation such as: “The authors’ names are listed alphabetically; however, each contributed equally to the work.” Another solution—but one that will work only if a writing team is very productive — is to take turns being listed as first author.

All of this may sound a bit strange at first, but think about what happens if faculty are being evaluated for tenure or promotion university-wide, you are on the committee, and someone says “I happen to know that person really did not deserve to be listed as an author on that book.” Many universities, in fact, have a weighting system for assessing faculty work or will require that the person being evaluated supply letters from co-authors attesting to the contributions made. For example, a faculty member seeking promotion was required by the university-wide committee to get verification from co-authors about how much he had contributed to a book chapter published in a colleague’s book. He was angry when the lead author for the chapter estimated his contribution to be 25 % because he had few publications and wanted his contribution to be 50%. His co-author remained calm, sat down, and went through the chapter, page by page. Out of the 20 pages, only about three were his work and, even then, it had to be heavily edited to be useful at all. The remainder had been written by the other two authors so, if anything, a 25 % contribution was a generous estimate. Reputable scholars are scrupulously fair about these matters and tend to err on the side of being generous rather than grabbing all of the credit for themselves.