How NOT to Assign Authorship in Academic Publishing

By Published On: October 23, 2022Last Updated: November 23, 2022

In 1948, Ph.D. student Ralph Alpher and his advisor George Gamow were about to publish their work on the origins of chemical elements from the Big Bang. Gamow, well known for his pranks and practical jokes, couldn’t resist inviting his good friend and renowned physicist Hans Bethe to be listed as an author alongside himself and Alpher. The authorship assignment would list ‘Alpher, Bethe, Gamow’ and read alpha, beta, gamma—the first three letters of the Greek alphabet.

Alpher-Bethe-Gamow: How Not to Assign Authorship

Being a good sport and not wanting to let his pal Gamow down, Bethe agreed to lend his name to the authorship. Alpher, however, wasn’t too pleased. At the time, Alpher was a young researcher just starting to make his mark in the field of cosmology. He felt that including such a prominent scientist as Bethe (who contributed nothing but his name) in the authorship would overshadow his contribution to the paper. But Gamow, being his Ph.D. supervisor, had the final say, and the article was published with the now infamous author list. On April Fool’s day, no less.

alpher bethe gamow paper authorship assignment

Widely known today as the αβγ paper (not to be confused with the three types of ionizing radiation), it provides a lesson on how not to assign authorship in a research paper. Although a rather extreme case of authorship malpractice, it highlights a problem with the state of academic publishing and the peer review process. To this day, discriminatory practices exist in authorship assignments, with partisanship and reputation prioritized over actual scientific contributions.

Importance of Authorship in Scientific Publishing

In academic publishing, authorship assignment and the order of listing are critical because they are a mark of a researcher’s contributions to the field. Generally, the listing order also correlates to each author’s contribution to the work involved. The number of people in the author list is also a matter of contention; papers generally have between 1 to 10 authors. Having too many authors ‘dilutes’ the apparent contribution of each, although there is no rule on the maximum—the current record is over 5000.

Unethical Practices in Assigning Authorship

Given the importance of author lists in research papers, it is unfortunate (but perhaps unsurprising) that favoritism and partisanship play a big part in forming them. A survey of 1408 researchers showed that 21.8% experienced unethical practices surrounding authorship assignment, including power imbalances (students advised to include other professors in the author list out of ‘generosity’) and gender bias against women.

Other unethical practices include ‘free-riding’, where individuals collude to cite one another in papers, regardless of contribution. Since many research committees base their evaluations only on the number of citations an individual has, this works to inflate their perceived research impact. Other responses include removing authors who had contributed substantially, citing practices of bullying, coercion and intimidation. The ethical issues surrounding authorship are challenging to quantify since many researchers know that speaking out could be detrimental to their careers.

Reputation Bias in Peer-Review

Being listed as an author in academic publishing isn’t just for show; it’s a researcher’s bread and butter—their reputation in the field grows with their citations. However, a study in 2022 by researchers at the University of Graz highlighted the issues of reputation bias in peer review. In scientific publishing, the peer review process is critical since it determines whether the paper submitted is of the required standard to be published in the respective journal. As a result, reviewers and authors often come from similar fields and research backgrounds. The study showed that this often led to the author’s prominence affecting the peer review process.

To begin with, requests to review manuscripts were more likely to be accepted when the requestor was a Nobel laureate than an early-stage researcher (38.54% vs. 28.52%). The study then compared the rejection and acceptance rates of manuscripts submitted by different authors.

Reviewers rejected 65.4% of the manuscripts outright when shown the name of a less prominent author compared to just a 22.6% rejection rate when the name was that of a famous author. It also affected the review process; 20.6% of papers submitted by well-known researchers were accepted immediately without revisions necessary, with only 2.0% of papers submitted by lesser-known researchers given the same treatment.

This is evidence that having well-known scientists in a paper’s author list helps to accelerate its publishing, regardless of their actual contribution. Worryingly, the opposite is also true; having lower reputation authors (with perhaps significant contributions to the research) in the author list could be detrimental to the paper’s peer review process. Maybe Gamow was on to something when he included Bethe—who would later win the Nobel Prize—in Alpher’s research.

Although the author list can be removed before peer review, it is difficult to remain anonymous, especially in niche fields of science where reviewers are familiar with the people behind the research. These findings help to shed light on the problems with the peer review process, where there is a tradeoff between anonymity and expertise. It is, therefore, important to ensure good practices in the process of authorship assignment.

Practice Good Authorship Assignment

Most researchers take ethics very seriously, fostering collaboration and teamwork. However, to reduce the likelihood of unethical practices and bias in authorship, it is good practice to establish an ordered author list that everyone agrees with before any research is carried out, reflecting the planned contributions of those involved.

While the number and contributions of authors might (and probably will) change over several years of research, having an author list in place beforehand allows each potential author to better plan their time and commitment to the project. It also provides for fair discussion around any alterations to the list later, preventing unnecessary suspicion and disagreements among collaborators.

Furthermore, the rationale for the order and placement in the list should be transparent, with every member involved in the project having a voice in the discussion. Lastly, there should be no room for honorary or generosity-based authorship assignments in academic publishing, even if it’s part of a well-planned joke!

About the Author

sean author
Sean Lim

Sean is a consultant for clients in the pharmaceutical industry and is an associate lecturer at La Trobe University, where unfortunate undergrads are subject to his ramblings on chemistry and pharmacology.

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