Authorship and Substantial Contributions

This post discusses the issue of academic authorship. We ask, who is an author? An author is someone who makes a substantial contribution. Since that is not very satisfying, we must also ask, what is a substantial contribution?

In previous posts, we discussed the structure of empirical articles in the social sciences, and tips on how to write the introduction, the data and methods section, the conclusion section, and the acknowledgements section.

Who is an Author?

Let’s read what the profession says about authorship. First stop is the International Sociological Association Code of Ethics:

They do not have strict or explicit authorship guidelines, but they do mention acknowledgement:

“The contribution of scholars, sponsors, technicians or other collaborators who have made a substantial contribution in carrying out a research project should be acknowledged explicitly in any subsequent publication.”

The term “substantial contribution” is not clear. It does show that, in these guidelines, there is subjectivity as to what constitutes contribution. Looking at the logic of acknowledgements, there are some good rules to follow. But let’s look further.

Let’s read the American Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics:

“14. Authorship

Sociologists take responsibility and credit, including authorship credit, only for work they have actually performed or to which they have made a substantial contribution.

(a) In collaborative work, both within Sociology and across disciplines, research teams vary with regard to decisions about the order of authorship. Although there are alternate approaches (which may be explained in a footnote or acknowledgement), the default order of authorship in Sociology is based on the relative scientific or professional contributions of the authors.

(b) When collaborative work substantially derives from a student’s dissertation or thesis, the student is usually listed as first author.”

Is this better?

While ASA says a bit more about it, their definition leaves room for subjectivity. We read again about “substantial contribution,” but they do not define it. Students whose dissertation or thesis work is the basis of the publication should be first author, but even here, ASA uses the word, “usually.”

Avoid Plagarism

One clear message is to avoid plagiarism and honorary authorship. Plagiarism is taking others’ writing and posing it as your own without credit or attribution to the original work. Honorary authorship is being listed as an author but not having anything whatsoever to do with the work. (see the British Sociological Association BSA)

Acknowledgments are Important

But, most cases in the social sciences are about the negotiation of what constitutes “substantial contribution” and what constitutes acknowledgement. Phrases that BSA uses such as “significant intellectual contribution” and “substantial direct academic contribution (i.e. intellectual responsibility and substantive work)” still rely on the word, “substantial.”

To find out more, let’s go beyond the social sciences.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, or ICMJE, is a “working group” of editors from such high profile publications as New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, and others.

They have authorship guidelines and they appear to be detailed: Defining the Role of Authors and Contributors.

Authorship is responsibility. Authors are responsible for the published work. Here, they want to distinguish between an author and a contributor. They have four authorship criteria. The first is the ubiquitous “Substantial contributions.” They try to delineate what that means.

“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 revising 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.”

Note the connector AND. This AND means that all conditions must be met. Though there is more detail, what constitutes “substantial contribution” is not clear.

They argue that potential authors should have an opportunity to be a named author: “all individuals who meet the first criterion should have the opportunity to participate in the review, drafting, and final approval of the manuscript.”

(see also the journal Nature)

woman sharing her presentation with her colleagues
Is she doing all the work around here?

What Is Substantial Contribution?

It seems that substantial contribution is a negotiation that has no strict equivalent across all situations — in some teams or organizations, these rules can be codified. But in others, there are no detailed codified rules. There are ethics and other useful guidelines, however, and these should be read and reflected upon.

This means that principles of fairness and honesty of all participants involved is needed to provide a satisfactory authorship. Ideally, as ICMJE points out, this would be worked out beforehand.

Reality is messy. Some research is conducted over years, which complicates authorship. People drop out of projects. New people are brought in. Conflicts between researchers can lead to bias in authorship decision-making. Researchers can be unrealistic about their actual contribution. Others are not assertive enough and are left out. No one should be forced to be an author.


In the absence of rigid institutional or organizational rules, the hope for good authorship decisions is in self-reflection, honesty, and professionalism.

A professional is one who is honest in their communication with others and is willing to change their mind as a result of good arguments and self-reflection.

Other Resources

Credit Where Credit is Due: Navigating Academic Credit and Authorship

CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) “is a high-level taxonomy, including 14 roles, that can be used to represent the roles typically played by contributors to research outputs.”

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