Responsible and equitable authorship must become the new normal


Being named the author of an academic paper implies that you made a significant contribution to the work, and that you take responsibility for its content. Unfortunately, this is not always how it works in practice. Some authors appear without justification, while others who contributed substantially to the work get less credit or no credit at all. A new LERU advice paper argues strongly for a cultural change in favour of responsible and equitable authorship. Co-authors Inge Lerouge and Frits Rosendaal explain why this change is necessary.

Why is this a good moment to look at authorship?

Inge Lerouge: Recent studies have shown that bad authorship practices are still common and widespread, so it’s a very persistent problem. For example, 70% of the respondents in a recent international survey said that they had been involved in projects in the past three years that listed authors who did not contribute sufficiently to the work. Meanwhile, those of us in the LERU Research Integrity Policy Group who work in universities, for example as research integrity officers or who chair research integrity committees, are often confronted with disputes and complaints related to authorship. These experiences made us reflect on what is needed to change the culture towards more responsible authorship.

Frits Rosendaal: In theory, these issues concerning authorship seem easy to fix. If academic publications listed only the authors who did a substantial part of the work, then everything would be fine. Of course, the situation is more complex than that, but ultimately this is something that can be remedied.

What makes this a difficult issue to address?

Inge Lerouge: Authorship guidelines and criteria do exist, but do not seem to be widely used. There is also no global or unified view on the definition of authorship, and this makes it difficult and sometimes confusing for researchers. More discussion and guidance are also needed on what counts as a significant or substantial contribution, which is often dependent on the traditions and norms of the research discipline.

Frits Rosendaal: Universities and funding agencies have a big responsibility, because they often give perverse incentives. When promotion or the research funding you get is based on how much or where you publish, then that may lead to undesirable practices. The worst part is that, while many of these practices are actually breaches of scientific integrity, people often don’t see it that way. They think this is just the way we do things. The painful truth is that the way we do things is not right.

How do you hope this LERU advice paper will help?

Inge Lerouge: We’ve tried to address this issue in our publication by using a principle-based approach. The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, known as the ALLEA code, has defined four research integrity principles – reliability, honesty, respect and accountability – and we’ve translated those fundamental principles into a concept of responsible and equitable authorship, with recommendations for researchers, universities and journals.

Lerouge Mg 3852S Inge Lerouge

How should universities address the most serious abuses of authorship?

Inge Lerouge: We recommend that universities have appropriate processes in place to handle irresponsible authorship , ranging from an informal route to a formal route that involves an investigation. But our real priority is to avoid irresponsible authorship by creating an environment where good authorship practices can flourish.

What is needed for that to happen?

Inge Lerouge: It’s important that researchers can have an honest and open discussion about contributions and authorship with their team members, and that they feel free and comfortable doing that. Communicating about authorship early on in the research process is key, and can avoid many misunderstandings and disputes later on. Then they should be transparent about their contributions to a publication, through an author contribution statement.

Frits Rosendaal: Everywhere it is stated that an author made a contribution, that needs to be made clearer and more transparent. So, not “I made a significant contribution” but “this was my contribution”. But that will require cultural change, which will happen only through education. And it will not happen over night. It might need to be a generational change.

One option you present is movie-style credits for scientific work…

Frits Rosendaal: This idea has a certain logic to it. At the moment, we make a distinction between authors, who make a significant and sufficient contribution to the research, and others, who are listed as contributors. If that division turns into a spectrum of different roles, then the cut-off point for being an author becomes moot. In that case, if you have a finer definition of contributions, why not leave the author out altogether?

Inge Lerouge: You can avoid certain disputes on authorship with this movie-style approach, but there are always leaders and main contributors in a research project. Once the question arises about who was the lead contributor, then this will probably bring us back to the difference between a contributor and an author, so I’m not sure if a complete elimination of authorship is really feasible at present.

Frits Rosendaal lumc Prof. Frits Rosendaal

Can the disciplinary differences you mention be accommodated, or is convergence inevitable?

Frits Rosendaal: To some extent they can be accommodated, and in some cases they will have to be, because there are fundamental differences in what authorship means. In disciplines such as philosophy, the words themselves really count, but in others the words are mainly there to guide you through the numbers, figures and tables.

Do universities need support from other stakeholders in order to improve the situation?

Inge Lerouge: Definitely. It should be a collective action, in which funding agencies and journals also play an important role. The funding agencies can help to improve the situation by emphasising quality over quantity in their evaluation systems, while journals can support the use of author contribution statements and include credit roles within author meta-data, in a machine-readable format, since this will facilitate automatic interoperability of institutional publication repositories, for example.

How is artificial intelligence affecting the authorship debate?

Inge Lerouge: In addition to credit, accountability is also a crucial aspect of authorship. As an author you agree to be responsible for the content of the published work, and since generative AI such as ChatGPT cannot take this responsibility or be accountable, these tools cannot be named as authors. And in any case, using generative AI without oversight of a human author is not a good idea.

Frits Rosendaal: It’s also difficult to say exactly what contribution generative AI has made to a paper. But even if that were clear it can’t be an author, it still might be used, and we need to pay attention to this fast-developing area. In their role educating students in the art of academic writing, universities will have to develop a clear policy on how they feel about the use of AI or large language models, what is acceptable and what is not.

Finally, what is at stake if authorship practice does not improve?

Inge Lerouge: Authorship is about giving credit where credit is due, and young researchers can feel very bad when they are not credited in the right way, or when they are forced to put a name in the author list because a person in power forced them to do so. This can be very upsetting. It can put relationships and careers under stress, and might be a reason for them to quit. And that would be very sad.

Inge Lerouge is research integrity coordinator at KU Leuven, and a member of LERU’s Research Integrity Group. Frits Rosendaal is Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at Leiden University Medical Center and Chair of LERU’s Research Integrity Policy Group.

©LERU: Text by Ian Mundell.


Prof. Kurt Deketelaere, LERU Secretary-General, or +32 499 80 89 99
Dr Claire Gray, LERU Senior Policy Officer Biomedical & Natural Sciences, or +32 484 77 46 37

Media contact:

Bart Valkenaers, LERU Senior Policy Officer Strategic Communication & Public Affairs, or +32 498 08 43 49