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Good practices

What defines an author

daniel buenoA document intended for the editors of scientific journals has offered a set of guidelines meant to avert disputes and ethical dilemmas involving the attribution of authorship. Released in September 2014 by a work group of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a forum headquartered in London, the document suggests that all journals should clearly define the conditions that in their estimation qualify a researcher to sign an article, and should post them on their websites. If the rules are drawn from those of a scientific institute or society, this should also be stated.

Another important safeguard is to require all authors to sign a statement of authorship. Most journals already take this precaution, but COPE defined four conditions that should not be forgotten: 1) All authors must meet the criteria defined by the journal; 2) all authors must assume responsibility for research integrity; 3) the names of other individuals qualified to be authors of the paper must not be omitted; 4) the statement must stipulate what each of the authors contributed to the conception and development of the paper. The document also recommends that journals send correspondence to all named authors to guarantee that everyone has agreed to sign the paper.

There is a general consensus that an author is someone who makes a true intellectual contribution to a research study by taking part in its conception, execution, analysis, and results write-up and endorsing its final content. The COPE document stresses that individuals whose contributions meet some but not all of the authorship criteria should be mentioned in the acknowledgements, along with those who helped obtain funding and infrastructure while not actually participating in the research.

The work group admits that it does not have the answers to all the controversies surrounding the attribution of authorship. It cites as an example the guidelines of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), according to which an author should be held accountable for all aspects of a paper in order to ensure that issues involving the accuracy and integrity of every part of the study have been settled. According to the work group, this can be problematic in the case of multidisciplinary studies, where researchers have an in-depth understanding only of their own specific contributions. Another shortcoming in the ICMJE guidelines is the requirement that all authors approve the final version to be published; one of the concerns is that when a paper has many signatures, one author might make exaggerated or inappropriate demands that could hamper publication. The COPE document can be accessed at http://publicationethics.org/files/Authorship_DiscussionDocument.pdf.

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