Behrooz Astaneh: Authorship criteria – use or abuse

Behrooz AstanehA recent post on WAME forum about authorship criteria shows that it is still a challenge, even though standard guidelines were released a few years ago by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (Vancouver group). The responses to the post on the WAME forum triggered me to write this blog. The case described was of 5 surgeons who were working in a hospital and using a similar technique to operate on their patients. Surgeon B left the academy after a while to work in the private sector. Surgeon A decided to write a manuscript about their experiences and was the first author. Surgeons C, D, and E were named in the byline of the manuscript, but surgeon B was excluded. The question is whether surgeon B can claim to be an author of the article as well.

The answers on the forum were mostly not in favor of his/her authorship, because he/she did not fulfill the authorship criteria. The basis of these answers was the ICMJE guideline which clearly states who can be an author and who should be acknowledged in acknowledgement section. However it seems to me that some ethical aspects of authorship can be ignored if we use the Vancouver guideline as a way to differentiate authors from non-authors.

The guideline states that those who collaborated solely in gathering data do not fulfil the authorship criteria. They can only be acknowledged. But there is a difference between data collection and data generation. In the above mentioned example surgeon B had generated an important part of the data (similar to the other surgeons) which were finally used in analyzing and writing the manuscript. He/she has the right to be asked for full collaborations to fulfil the standard criteria of authorship. Is it fair that the other researchers did not ask him/her for help to write the primary draft, revise it critically, and approve the final draft, and then claim that the other surgeon does not fulfil the authorship criteria released by the Vancouver group? Surgeon B might be willing to participate, and it is his/her right to be asked to collaborate.

A similar scenario happened last week in our institute and the dean of the paramedical school asked for my advice. Two senior researchers had helped a student during the preparation of her thesis. The thesis was submitted naming all three researchers. After a while the student moved abroad to continue with her studies. Researcher A had asked an expert in English to translate the thesis, and then she changed it to a manuscript, excluding both the student and researcher B. When researcher A was asked about the reason for excluding her two colleagues, she claimed that according to the Vancouver guideline they did not fulfil authorship criteria because they did not help in writing the primary draft, or revising it, nor finally approving the article. She was basically right as both researcher B and the student did not fulfil sections 2 and 3 of the ICMJE guideline. But was her approach ethical? Is not there any right for those researchers to be asked to take part?

I wonder if we should think about some solutions to prevent people from abusing the ICMJE guideline. In the 21st century, it is not right to say “my student moved abroad and I could not contact her.” Any academic in our era has at least one email address. Many students and faculty members are members of social networks as well. Everybody has a mobile phone number. So they can be easily found, or at least we can try to find them to ask for their collaboration in writing a manuscript which was originated from data generated partly by them.

Using the ICMJE guideline roughly without considering the ethical aspects of people’s contributions may lead to this guideline being abused, which is worse than not having any guideline at all. By using an abused guideline, the unethical behaviour may appear to be legal and legitimate. So maybe it is the time to think about a supplement for ICMJE criteria.

Behrooz Astaneh is a visiting editor, BMJ