21 Jun 2018   |   Network Updates   |   Update from Polytechnique Montréal
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Practices of granting authorship: Nature takes an interest in the work of two Polytechnique Montréal professors

The journal Nature recently reported, in the News section of its website, on the findings of research professors Gregory Patience and Daria Camilla Boffito of the Department of Chemical Engineering. Their work focused on the granting of author credit In scholarly papers.

Did you know?

In recent years, the number of authors credited on articles has been increasing. In 2015, a physics article set a record with 5,154 authors credited! Looking at articles authored by at least one person at Polytechnique Montréal, across some 750 articles listed in Web of Science database for 2017, there were between 1 and 60 authors, with an average of 4.7 authors per article.

Professors Patience and Boffito investigated the criteria that researchers rely on in granting—or not granting—authorship of published articles. According to Professor Patience, it is generally the researchers themselves, after discussion, who decide who merits authorship.

In their article Intellectual contributions meriting authorship: Survey results from the top-cited authors across all science categories, the subject of the Nature news item, Professors Patience and Boffito and their colleagues observed that authorship practices vary greatly from one scientific discipline to the next, and even more so within the same discipline. To arrive at their conclusion, the authors surveyed close to 6,000 of the most-cited researchers in 21 disciplines to find out which research-related tasks merited the granting of authorship of an article. Earlier studies on the subject had used far smaller sample sizes, hence the interest in this new research.

To determine the list of research-related tasks that might warrant authorship, Professors Patience and Boffito used the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) authorship guidelines. They found that, despite the existence of guidelines and recommendations on the granting of authorship, scientists’ opinions and practices vary widely. With regard to certain tasks, opinions are extremely divided: around 40% of respondents believe that the person who establishes the research team should be designated an author, but approximately the same proportion said that they only “sometimes” or “almost never” grant authorship to the person performing that task.

To contribute to transparency with regard to the contributions of the various authors, many scientific journals require that the precise roles of each be mentioned. According to Professor Patience, this practice may foster a degree of transparency, but will not prevent the phenomenon of guest authorship, i.e., the fact of including an author solely on the basis of their reputation or position of authority.

While reaching agreement on rules for granting authorship would seem advisable, one wonders whether this would be possible given the complexity of the research process. It’s safe to say that debate among researchers on the topic is not about to end soon!

Gregory Patience, a full professor in the Polytechnique Montréal Department of Chemical Engineering, is the principal author of the article Intellectual contributions meriting authorship: Survey results from the top-cited authors across all science categories. The co-authors are Daria Camilla Boffito, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Paul A. Patience, an undergraduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering, and Federico Galli, who at the time of writing was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Polytechnique.

The article is currently at the preprint stage and available for viewing by anyone, as it has been posted to the open-access disciplinary server bioRxiv. For more details, read the study findings here: DOI: 10.1038/d41586-018-05280-0

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