The importance of agreeing authorship in research

The LongITools and EHEN Early Career Research Network recently took part in training focused on agreeing authorship in collaborative research. The training was delivered by Minna Ruddock, Research Director of the Northern Finland Birth Cohorts and Arctic Biobank and Chair of the Ethics Working Group at the University of Oulu.

To a non-scientist, it might sound an easy task to provide a list of names to be attributed to a piece of research. However, it is not as straightforward as you might assume! Publication authorship matters – it is a factor in ensuring that research is responsible and has integrity and plays an important role in academia.

What is responsible research?

Research Ethics: Ethical responsibility in science requires researchers to conduct and communicate scientific work for the benefit of society, with excellence, integrity, respect, fairness, trustworthiness, clarity, and transparency. This ethical responsibility and good scientific practice can affect the credibility of the research and the public’s trust in it.

Each researcher and research team are responsible for adhering to the principles of good scientific practice. However, this responsibility is also shared by the director of the research unit and the management of the organisations conducting research.

Equality and non-discrimination: Promoting equality and non-discrimination are vital in responsible research. This includes ensuring a balanced gender representation and ensuring no one is discriminated against based on age, ethnic or national origin, nationality, language, religion, belief, opinion, health, disability, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics.

Open science: Open science prioritises transparency, collaboration, and openness in scientific research to make research more accessible, reproducible, and impactful for both researchers and society.

What is research integrity?

The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity promotes the responsible conduct of research and prevents research misconduct. It follows four basic principles – reliability, honesty, respect and accountability. This means that research:

  • Can only be reliable, and of high quality, and its results credible if it has been carried out in a manner required by responsible conduct of research. This should be reflected in the design, methodology, analysis and use of resources.
  • Follows practices recognised by the scientific community, i.e. honesty, general care and accuracy in research, recording and presenting results, and evaluating research and its results without bias.
  • Is subject to ethically sustainable data acquisition, research and evaluation methods that comply with openness and transparency. It should show respect for colleagues, research participants, research subjects, society, ecosystems, cultural heritage, and the environment
  • Must demonstrate accountability – from idea to publication, for management and organisation, for training, supervision, and mentoring, and its wider societal impacts.

Following the principles of research integrity, researchers must take due account of the work and achievements of other researchers, respecting their work, citing their publications appropriately, and giving their achievements the value and significance they deserve.

Why are publications and authorship important to a researcher?

Scientific publications are an important part of academic career advancement and can help in several ways:

How do researchers agree on authorship?

The principles of authorship vary depending on the research disciplines in question. If the research is conducted in a research group, it is not always clear in which order the names of authors or contributors should be listed, or whose names should be included in the list of authors. In cases like these, disputes over authorship can arise, and they may be difficult to resolve afterwards.

It is therefore highly recommended that authorship is discussed, verbally agreed and then confirmed in writing at the start of any piece of collaborative research or research project.

Stage 1 – Planning the research

In the early stages, you should agree on the principles of the parties in the project (rights, responsibilities and obligations).

  • List who are the parties involved, including dates and signatures.
  • Decide what contributions are needed for authorship in the project.
  • Select the basis for a person being named in the acknowledgements.
  • Define the principle on which the order of authors is decided.

Stage 2 – During the research

  • Agree the order of names in the list of authors (in writing and separately for each publication).
  • Check the actual contribution made of each proposed author during the project.
  • Make sure that everyone participating in the project is aware of what is agreed.
  • Revisit the principles if any changes happen during the project.

Stage 3 – Publication

  • Check that all authors have approved the final version of the manuscript.
  • Remind authors of the responsibility for research integrity that authorship brings and that all authors are fully responsible for the content of a publication unless otherwise specified.

The Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK recommends following a checklist at each stage of research in order to avoid conflict.

Deciding who is an author

In the biomedical field, guidance from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) can be followed. It recommends that authorship be defined by the following four criteria:

  • 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 reviewing 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.

Non-author contributors

According to ICMJE, those who do not meet all four of the above criteria should not be listed as authors, but they should be acknowledged. Examples of reasons for acknowledgement would be those acquiring the research funding, general supervision of a research group or language editing, and proofreading.

The order of authors

Publications in the biomedical field typically, but not exclusively, have several authors. At the beginning of the authors list are persons with most contribution to the practical work, for example, those providing analyses, figures, tables, and first drafts of the manuscript. They are often students or post-doctoral researchers. At the end of the list are the senior researchers who usually have contributed to the design of the study and supervised the analyses and writing. Authors listed in the middle are likely to have made any other significant contributions to the study or article.

For first and last authorship, these can be shared when equal contribution has been agreed.

It is also important to note that all authors share equal responsibility for the published work.

How to avoid disputes in authorship

Despite your best efforts, there will always be situations where a dispute arises. These should always be resolved before the manuscript is submitted for publication otherwise the unresolved dispute could lead to raised questions about the credibility of authors and lack of trust in the research outcomes.

In summary, if you follow the key points below, disputes should be avoided or resolved quickly and successfully:



Research Council of Finland.

The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity.

Finnish National Board on Research Integrity (TENK)

International Committee of Medical Journal Editors