Who writes what? Responsible authorship recognition in co-produced research

DEPTH team members collating research themes

New term, new research! We’re very excited to publish our latest article: ‘Reimagining authorship guidelines to promote equity in co-produced academic collaborations’, open access in Global Public Health. This piece brings together our thoughts on academic authorship from our recent ACCESS project on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for marginalised populations, with our thinking on knowledge co-production from the project ‘This Sickle Cell Life’, a sociological study of young people’s experiences of paediatric to adult healthcare transitions

The call for papers for a special issue of Global Public Health on ‘(Re)imagining Research, Activism, and Rights at the Intersections of Sexuality, Health, and Social Justice’ offered us the perfect opportunity to crystallise some of the discussions we had and are still having as a research team about health co-production, academic research, authorship, and social justice. We take collaboration and engagement very seriously in DEPTH here at LSHTM, and felt that established authorship guidelines, while excellent benchmarks for ethical research and publication practices, aren’t always fit for purpose when it comes to co-produced work with different stakeholders. As we reflect in our Discussion:

There are numerous structural barriers to full collaboration that have an impact on authorship. The structural barriers to collaboration in general can be revealed in decisions about authorship – they are highlighted in who makes authorship decisions, and who benefits from them, and the structures and conventions that support and entrench inequities and devalue collaborative in favour of competitive working. 

In light of these tricky contextual norms, we found numerous questions that needed unpacking: who is an author, and what do they contribute? When does a person’s place in the acknowledgements change to place on the author list, and when should it? How might we think more deeply about academic products and knowledge so that we do not inadvertently help supress voices that are already less heard? These voices are often less heard in academia because of the structures and customs of the academic system, so what impediments can we sidestep while acknowledging we still function within that system?

The result of our discussions is the article, which starts to explore how we might more explicitly pursue recognition of co-produced contributions to academic research. One way to hold ourselves and each other to account in equitable ways of working is through authorship guidelines, which we hope will prove useful as a jumping-off point for others engaged in collaborative work – especially with practitioners, activists, or non-academics, whose contributions and knowledges don’t always fit neatly into academic ‘boxes’. Having reflected on who tends to be disadvantaged by the current systems, we suggest that spending time thinking critically (and sometimes painfully) about these positions and relations can help to scaffold authorship norms that are fairer and more transparent.

You can read the whole piece here, free and open-access. But in this blog I wanted to highlight our authorship guidelines specifically. They are amended from existing excellent offerings of ICMJE and BSA, and move beyond them in that here we incorporate more explicit attention to different stakeholder contributions, and also to co-produced outputs. These are both themes that are long overdue more sustained reflection, and in an academic context of ever-increasing cross-disciplinary and cross-country collaboration and co-production with communities, we hope they prove useful for other researchers out there. 

Take a look at our suggested authorship guidelines and see what you think – and reply to this post if you have suggestions for improvements or any other comments:

 1.      The nature of academic publication processes and authorship conventions should be explained to all partners so that the meaning of authorship and involvement is clear to all parties regardless of university affiliation or discipline.
 2.      The project research/writing team should list details of expected papers early in any sub-project, including expected authorship and author order (especially first author).
 3.      The rationale for authorship and author order should be transparent. All authors must make a substantive contribution to the intellectual content of the publication.
 4.      Non-academic project partners should be invited to co-author the work, with plans in place early on about how to handle suitable contributions. Level of input required must be discussed and agreed early on to ensure clarity on how authorship is allocated.
 5.      Contributors whose contribution does not in the final product meet the criteria for authorship should be named in the acknowledgements. Named individuals must be informed so that they can withdraw their name if they wish.
 6.      Where used, translators/interpreters must be named in the acknowledgements.
 7.      Lead author must draft the paper, with input from other authors, and be responsible for submitting the paper and making any revisions in response to referee comments. The lead author must not submit any paper without the agreement of the named authors.
 8.      All academic publications should contain a statement about the contribution of each named author.
 9.      The PI must approve submission of academic articles from the project and must be named as author if criteria for authorship are met.
 10.    Academic journal publication must be supplemented with publication of findings in other channels to ensure inclusive dissemination (e.g. tweets, policy document, media article, public workshop).
 11.    The particular needs of members of the team should be considered in arranging publication strategy (e.g. need to gain experience of lead authorship). However, any named author must fulfil the requirements for their authorship position.
 12.    Sole authorship will not generally be possible or desirable within the project because of the collaborative nature of the work and our recognition that knowledge is co-produced through these collaborative relationships.
 13.    Consider adding the consortium or project name to all work with numerous contributors who do not meet the criteria for authorship and listing key contributors to the paper in the acknowledgements.
 14.    In the event of any disagreements or confusion about authorship or author order, please refer to these guidelines within the writing team. If there is still confusion, please request assistance from the PI as the question may need to be referred for a wider discussion and/or the guidelines may need to be clarified.
DEPTH Authorship Guidelines, 2021

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