Discipline specific authorship traditions

When you speak to researchers from different disciplines about academic authorship, you get many different answers about who they think should be an author, what order the authors should take and what the order means. It is therefore apparent that there are different discipline-specific traditions about how authorship is conducted for journal articles.

Humanities and social science disciplines

Single author publications are more common in Humanities disciplines than in Science, Technology and Medicine. Research, and the writing aspect of this, is more often seen as a solo endeavour due to the nature of the subjects involved and therefore single author papers and books are highly valued. However, a recent white paper by Taylor & Francis concerning co-authorship in the humanities and social sciences found that co-authorship seems to be increasing with 74% of respondents to a recent survey reporting their typical number of authors per paper being two or more.

This tradition though does mean that co-authorship is less well discussed and there seems to be no consensus on how it should be approached. The Taylor & Francis white paper also states that issues have arisen concerning the over-crediting of senior or supervisory researchers and only 18% of respondents reporting having received training in determining academic authorship.

Medical Sciences

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) has a clear set of guidelines for medical science that is also used more widely in other scientific disciplines journals. The criteria are clear for authorship and require substantial contributions to several areas of the research project, including writing or editing. It sets out four criteria that must all be met to be deemed an author on the paper:

  • Significant involvement in the study design, data collection or analysis.

  • Involvement in drafting or revising the manuscript.

  • Approval of the final version of the manuscript.

  • Responsibility for accuracy and integrity of all aspects of research.

If all these criteria are not met then these contributors can only be added to the acknowledgements. Therefore, these criteria are not inclusive in terms of authorship for all contributions to a research project, even if they are substantial contributions such as software development.

Many journals in this discipline still use their own guidelines or modified versions of the ICMJE guidelines due in part to a disagreement that an individual whose sole contribution is as the main writer would not qualify as an author [Pan21]. It is thought that this should allow authorship because to write a paper you would also need to understand and interpret the data therefore fulfilling the first criteria.

Natural Sciences

The natural sciences have no standard way to define academic authorship.

Leading journals such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) have set out that ‘authorship must be limited to those who have contributed substantially to the work’.

They also specify that the specific contributions of authors to the published work must be written in the footnote to the paper. Examples of designations include: designed research, performed research, contributed new reagents or analytic tools, analyzed data, wrote the paper.

This does mean that an author could be someone that does not write the paper, however, they must have agreed to the version of the paper that is submitted so this implies they have at least read and made comments on the final version.

Other journals such as PLOS One, e-life and F1000 Research are using the ICMJE criteria for authorship but in combination with a wider attribution for different contributions using the CRediT Taxonomy.
This is a high-level taxonomy that includes 14 roles to represent typical roles within scientific research making the contributions section of a paper at least more inclusive.

Order of authors and what this means

The order of authors is also different in each discipline and the placement of each author is often not understood outside of each discipline. The nuances of the author order are not explained anywhere in an academic paper for others to understand, such as how the authors have decided this order and the relevance of it to them.

However, in general the first author is seen as the person that has given the main contribution to the project in terms of forming the ideas and structure for the research paper, writing and editing of the article and being in charge of organising the article submission. They are also often the corresponding author that deals with any queries regarding the article. Although, in some academic circles being the corresponding author is a measure of academic status and does not have to be the same person as the first author.

In social sciences, the first author indicates who should get the most credit for the research and the authors are then listed in order of descending contributions, all the way to the last author who has made the least contribution. See the LSE Impact of social sciences blog - First among equals for a wider discussion on first authors.

However, in many disciplines the last author or the last two authors have significance and are senior members of the research team. These team members are likely to be in supervisory roles in the project. This could be as PhD supervisors, Principal Investigators or Co-investigators.

The authors in the middle of the list, between the first author and last author/s, can be in the order of most contributions to least, or as an alphabetical list.

Some disciplines, such as mathematics (see this Wikipedia page on academic authorship for more information), have always used alphabetical lists with no indication in the order given to the amount of contributions made.