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Lab Times



Being recognised as an author on research publications is of crucial importance to scientists because it is a unique

identifier of their scientific production. But who really did what and how much credit should be allocated or assumed?

Jeremy Garwood reports on a new, internet-based scheme offering ‘digital credentials’ that may allow researchers to

better display their research skills and achievements.

Digital badges: An easier way to see and understand who does what in science

True Credentials

Photo: Fotolia/Olga Kovalenko


nce upon a time, many research reports were written by

a single author. In such cases, there could be little doubt

about who had done the research and written the arti-

cle (assuming the author had not chosen to withdraw credit from

someone else). However, as even a cursory glance through the

current literature shows, most research papers in the life scienc-

es now have multiple authors. Among reasons advanced to ex-

plain the lengthening list of authors are changes in the nature of

collaborative science, the associated use of specialised technolo-

gy and the need for researchers to show that they are publishing

when being assessed for their “scientific productivity”.

However, what we cannot tell easily by reading a paper is who

actually did what. It is usually assumed that the first author did

most of the work and that the last author was some kind of di-

recting presence. Yet, in many cases, it is only those who are di-

rectly involved with the projects in question who can really un-

derstand and explain what each of the authors contributed to the

final paper.

Problems with author lists

And this situation appears even more unfair when we real-

ise that authorship of scientific papers is the major measure of

a researcher’s scientific productivity and “worth” when assess-

ing who gets future research jobs, grants, awards, administrative

power, etc.

Peter Lawrence wrote a series of articles examining how the

politics of publication in science has resulted in a situation of

“rank injustice”, in which the misallocation of credit is endemic



, 415:835-6,


, 422:259-61), a position he discussed

further in

Lab Times



2-2011 p. 24,‘The heart of research is

sick’). “A common way to build rank is to annex credit from jun-

ior colleagues. To stop this I would like to see granting agencies

Types of Authorship Abuse

Coercion authorship

– Use of intimidation tactics to gain authorship. Arguably a serious form of scientific mis-


Honorary, guest, or gift authorship

– Authorship awarded out of respect or friendship, in an attempt to curry

favour and/or to give a paper a greater sense of legitimacy. To qualify as an honorary author, you only have to

meet the following criteria: The author did not conceive or design the work, analyse or interpret the data, or col-

lect data or other material. Nor did they write any part of the manuscript or revise the manuscript to make impor-

tant changes in content, or approve the final version of the manuscript. In fact, such an author might not “feel

comfortable explaining the major conclusions” of the article.

Mutual support authorship

– Agreement by two or more investigators to place their names on each other’s pa-

pers to give the appearance of higher productivity

Duplication authorship

– Publication of the same work in multiple journals

Ghost authorship

– Papers written by individuals who are not included as authors or acknowledged. This is a

situation that has often been linked to commercial interests, e.g. in articles that promote pharmaceutical drugs,

or that deny the toxicity of products, such as tobacco. Industry employees write the article and academic scien-

tists receive ‘honorary’ authorship.

Denial of authorship

– Publication of work carried out by others without providing them credit for their work with

authorship or formal acknowledgment. A form of plagiarism and therefore scientific misconduct

Source: “Authorship: why not just toss a coin?” by Kevin Strange

Am J Physiol Cell Physiol

. Sep 2008; 295(3): C567–75.

Photo: Fotolia/ra2 studio