The Ethics of Authorship, Acknowledgments, and Conflicts of interest

Authorship

Before you submit your work to a journal you must clearly indicate the author (or authors). A journal editor will expect to know who the author or authors are, and that they are qualified to be considered authors of the work submitted. 

Who is an author?

Only someone who has contributed substantially to the study can be called an author. Some definitions are as follows:

  • An author must have had a significant part in research and writing, and must be accountable and take responsibility for the finished work. 
  • An author’s input might include contributing to the design, research, data analysis, interpretation of data, preparation of the final version of the work, and any other active contribution to the entire final work. 
  • An author must have had a major part in the production of the final work.

According to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, authors must fulfill all four of the following 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 revising 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.

The journal editor may want to know what each author contributed to the work. You should be prepared to provide this information. 

Do not list anyone as an author if they have not actually contributed to the work. Sometimes authorship status might be given as a “gift” to a colleague or benefactor, but this is not acceptable in scientific publishing. This is known as “gift authorship” and is considered unethical. If you wish to acknowledge anyone, you can do so in the Acknowledgments section. If someone has contributed materials and wishes to be listed as an author, you can ask them to participate in data analysis and writing of the manuscript. In this way, they will have made a substantial contribution and thus qualify as an author. 

Before manuscript submission, be sure that all authors agree to authorship and the authorship order on the manuscript, and that all authors have read and approved of the final manuscript and agree to its submission to the target journal. Journal editors expect this to have been clarified before a manuscript is submitted to their journal.

Acknowledgments

People who might need to be thanked, but whose roles are less than those of the authors, should be listed in the Acknowledgements section, along with any necessary funding agencies and grant numbers. 

The Acknowledgements section includes those who:

  • Gave general support in research (including technical or statistical support) or supervised
  • Provided materials
  • Helped or advised in writing
  • Helped with the illustrations
  • Edited or proofread the work
  • Reviewed the work, gave a critical opinion, or suggested general amendments

Anyone who has helped only in producing the final work in some way cannot be listed as an author. You should specify what contribution each person made towards the final work when you acknowledge them. 

Be aware that all of those who have had major and important involvement in the work must be listed as an author. Moving an author to the Acknowledgments section to avoid declaring a potential conflict of interest is called “ghost authorship” and is highly unethical. You must always be honest about any potential conflict of interest, and any individual who meets authorship criteria should be accountable for the contents of the paper. 

Before manuscript submission, you need written permission from anyone you name in the Acknowledgments section.

Conflicts of interest

Anything that might bias your data or the interpretation of your research must be fully disclosed when you submit your  manuscript. Hence, most journals will require a Conflict of Interest statement in the manuscript text or the manuscript submission cover letter. 

This is the place for you to mention:

  • Any financial or personal relationship with a company involved in the study
  • Any financial or personal relationship with a rival company or organization

If a company has funded your research, you may need to explain the role the company has played in the analysis and interpretation of your data. If you are aware that a co-author has a conflict of interest when you begin your research, it is useful to keep this in mind when designing your study. This will allow you to take measures to avoid possible bias, such as blinding that author during the data analysis stage. 

Some journals will require you to complete and submit a Conflict of Interest declaration form along with your manuscript. Be sure to carefully read the author guidelines to determine if this will be required.

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