How to define authorship

The prevailing standard for defining authorship in scientific publishing comes from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). These standards are broadly applicable in journals across disciplines and are a great place to start when creating or iterating on your authorship policy. According to the ICMJE, an author is someone who meets all the following criteria:

  1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work
  2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content
  3. Final approval of the version to be published
  4. 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

In short, each author should have made an important contribution that enabled the study to be completed, be aware of how the results were presented, and be willing to stand up for the final manuscript. Beyond your policy for inclusion, it is also best practice to indicate authorship practices that you consider unethical, such as

  • Guest/honorary authorship: inclusion of someone who did not contribute in order to capitalize on their name recognition or out of a sense of obligation
  • Ghost authorship: omission of a rightful author from the final list

To guide the corresponding author to carefully consider whether someone qualifies for authorship, consider asking him or her to indicate the contributions that each author has made to the paper. The recently defined CRediT taxonomy has been used by several journals as a way to clearly demonstrate each author’s role on a given paper.

Presenting the CRediT taxonomy criteria (or a version of them that is appropriate for your journal) front and center keeps your authors on the same page as you. Authorship is incredibly important to career advancement for researchers, so it is important for journals to take it seriously and apply fair and consistent standards to all published works.

Author order

In a handful of fields, authors are listed alphabetically. (These are the easy ones!) However, in many others, the order in which authors are listed has implications for the authors. The first author is generally considered to be the primary contributor, and the last author may be seen as providing general oversight and direction (as the head of the lab, for example). Authors in the middle have contributed sufficiently to be listed on the paper, but perhaps in more limited ways than the primary authors.

To prevent what can be a long, protracted dispute later, it is best to ensure that author order is correct when you first receive a manuscript. The ICMJE recommends getting confirmation from every author listed on the paper that they contributed to the work and agree with the order in which they appear on the author list. Even if this is not possible or practical, be sure to require the corresponding author to confirm that they have verified the final author order with all other authors.


Researchers, or anyone else who has contributed to a paper in a meaningful way, who fall short of the requirements for authorship should still be recognized for their work if possible. Often this takes the form of an “Acknowledgments” section. Although contributorship does not have the career implications that authorship does, it is still a public recognition of work that contributors will appreciate and can benefit from.

Some examples of contributorship include the following:

  • General oversight of a research group
  • Administrative or technical support
  • Writing and editing assistance
  • Assistance in conducting research or analyzing data, but without substantially affecting study design or interpretation (e.g., transcribing survey results)