Scientific manuscripts are rarely the work of one author. They are the result of complex collaborative relationships. This reality begs the questions: Who is the author of a scientific manuscript? When is someone credited as an author, and when are they considered a non-author contributor?
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) Guidelines
Thankfully, medical communicators do not have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to identifying who should be named as an author and who qualifies for acknowledgment.
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) has published a substantial set of recommendations to standardize practices and guide ethical reporting and publishing of research.
The guidelines are crafted for authors who submit work for publication in ICMJE member journals; however, many non-ICMJE journals also have adopted similar guidelines. The ICMJE recommends that authors consult its guidelines while also following individual journals’ instructions.
In addition to spelling out the criteria for authorship, the ICMJE guidelines also clarify the roles and responsibilities of various contributors, including authors, contributors, reviewers, editors, publishers, and owners.
The document also explores the implications of authorship.
Why Authorship Matters
Authorship matters because the authors’ byline signifies that they are taking responsibility for the published content.
In the section of the guidelines titled “Why Authorship Matters,” the guide reads, “Authorship confers credit and has important academic, social, and financial implications.”
Because it is not always clear which intellectual contributions belong to whom, ICMJE recommends that editors of journals draft contributorship policies. “Such policies remove much of the ambiguity surrounding contributions, but leave unresolved the question of the quantity and quality of contribution that qualify an individual for authorship.”
4 Criteria for Authorship
In the ‘Who Is an Author?’ section of the guidelines, the ICMJE recommends the following 4 criteria for being named an author.
- “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 reviewing it critically for important 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.”
Individuals who meet all of these criteria should be identified as authors. If they don’t meet the criteria for authorship, they should be acknowledged as non-author contributors.
The ICMJE’s guidelines make it clear that authors and collaborators are responsible for deciding who meets the criteria for authorship, not the editor. Similarly, the author group decides the order in which the authors are listed on the byline.
What if something changes? “If authors request removal or addition of an author after manuscript submission or publication, journal editors should seek an explanation and signed statement of agreement for the requested change from all listed authors and from the author to be removed or added,” the guidelines read.
This step can be avoided if groups with multiple contributors decide who will be an author before submitting a manuscript.
The Role of the Corresponding Author
All authors have responsibilities, but the corresponding author is the one responsible for communicating with the journal’s editor during the process of submission, peer review, and publication. The corresponding author needs to be available and accessible to fulfill administrative requirements, provide additional details, answer queries, or pass them along to coauthors.
The corresponding author is the main point of contact. However, the ICMJE’s recommended practice is that all listed authors receive copies of correspondence from editors.
In some cases, large groups of authors decide upon a group name to represent the authorship. When this happens, the corresponding author needs to identify the authors and non-author contributors when submitting the manuscript.
What are the criteria for acknowledging non-author contributors?
When someone contributes to the authorship of a manuscript but does not meet all of the four criteria spelled out for authorship, they should still be acknowledged. According to ICMJE, the following types of contributions require acknowledgment:
- Acquiring funding
- Supervision of a research group of general administrative support
- Writing assistance, technical editing, language editing, and proofreading
The ICMJE guidelines suggest acknowledging such contributions under a heading such as “Clinical Investigators” or “Participating Investigators.” When someone is acknowledged in a published article, it is recommended that the corresponding author obtain written permission from the individuals who are acknowledged.
Individual contributions should be named specifically. For example,
- “XX served as scientific advisors…”
- “XX critically reviewed the study proposal…”
- “XX collected data…”
- “XX provided and cared for study patients.”
- “XX participated in writing or technical editing of the manuscript.”
This final point is often where professional medical writers contribute to the development of medical and scientific publications.
What is the professional consensus on attributing the work of medical communicators?
A Professional Consensus
In 2017, AMWA, the European Medical Writers Association (EMWA), and the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP) released the Joint Position Statement on the Role of Professional Medical Writers.
The Joint Position Statement outlines the responsibilities of professional medical writers in articles and supplementary content that is published in peer-reviewed journals and abstracts, posters, and oral presentations that are disseminated at scientific congresses.
The statement asserts that professional medical writers must
- Follow Good Publication Practice (GPP3) guidelines and International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommendations.
- Consult appropriate reporting guidelines (eg, CONSORT and others collated by the EQUATOR network).
- Ensure that the authors and sponsors are aware of their obligations under these guidelines.
- Keep up to date with advances in medical communication ethics and best practices.
The Joint Position Statement spells out a number of additional responsibilities for authors who collaborate with professional medical writers, including recognizing them as coauthors if they meet the ICMJE authorship criteria.
The Joint Position Statement also provides an example of a disclosure statement that could be used to disclose the support of professional medical writing.
“The authors thank [name and qualifications] of [company, city, country] for providing medical writing support/editorial support [specify and/or expand as appropriate], which was funded by [sponsor, city, country] in accordance with Good Publication Practice (GPP3) guidelines (http://www.ismpp.org/gpp3).”
Transparency and Ethical Publication
When authors, editors, contributors, and professional medical writers follow best practices for disclosing the contributions of authors and other collaborators, the result is a transparent and ethically sound process for publishing the results of scientific research.
This process guarantees progress toward the ultimate goal of advancing patient care.