Authorship is an explicit way of assigning responsibility and giving credit for intellectual work. The two are linked. Authorship practices should be judged by how honestly they reflect actual contributions to the final product. Authorship is important to the reputation, academic promotion, and grant support of the individuals involved as well as to the strength and reputation of their institution.
Many institutions, including medical schools and peer-reviewed journals, have established standards for authorship. These standards are similar on basic issues but are changing over time, mainly to take into account the growing proportion of research that is done by teams whose members have highly specialized roles.
In practice, various inducements have fostered authorship practices that fall short of these standards. Junior investigators may believe that including senior colleagues as authors will improve the credibility of their work and its chances of publication, whether or not those colleagues have made substantial intellectual contributions to the work. They may not want to offend their chiefs, who hold substantial power over their employment, research opportunities, and recommendations for jobs and promotion. Senior faculty might wish to be seen as productive researchers even though their other responsibilities prevent them from making direct contributions to their colleagues' work. They may have developed their views of authorship when senior investigators were listed as authors because of their logistic, financial, and administrative support alone.
Disputes sometimes arise about who should be listed as authors of an intellectual product and the order in which they should be listed. When disagreements over authorship arise, they can take a substantial toll on the good will, effectiveness, and reputation of the individuals involved and their academic community. Many such disagreements result from misunderstanding and failed communication among colleagues and might have been prevented by a clear, early understanding of standards for authorship that are shared by the academic community as a whole.
Discussions of authorship in academic medical centers usually concern published reports of original, scientific research. However, the same principles apply to all intellectual products: words or images; in paper or electronic media; whether published or prepared for local use; in scientific disciplines or the humanities; and whether intended for the dissemination of new discoveries and ideas, for published reviews of existing knowledge, or for educational programs.
The Faculty Council of Harvard Medical School has endorsed the following statement. Although authorship practices differ from one setting to another, and individual situations often require judgment, variation in practices should be within these basic guidelines.
Many different ways of determining order of authorship exist across disciplines, research groups, and countries. Examples of authorship policies include descending order of contribution, placing the person who took the lead in writing the manuscript or doing the research first and the most experienced contributor last, and alphabetical or random order. While the significance of a particular order may be understood in a given setting, order of authorship has no generally agreed upon meaning.
As a result, it is not possible to interpret from order of authorship the respective contributions of individual authors. Promotion committees, granting agencies, readers, and others who seek to understand how individual authors have contributed to the work should not read into order of authorship their own meaning, which may not be shared by the authors themselves.
Adopted on December 17, 1999.