tricia callahan

Written by Tricia Callahan

The cliché phrase “Publish or perish,” well describes the pressure many academics feel to publish their scholarly work.  Publication demonstrates academic talent, productivity, and progress through one’s chosen discipline.  For some, depending on the institution and discipline, peer-reviewed publications can be the difference between a successful bid for promotion and tenure and returning to the job market.

In a recent talk on “Authorship,” Dr. Ellen Fisher, Assistant Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, Colorado State University, discussed ethics surrounding authorship, as well as how the “value” of a publication is determined and criteria for determining authorship.

Setting the stage, Fisher cited a former advisor, “You haven’t done the experiment until you publish the paper.”  This sentiment reminds us that often, publications are the “coin of the realm.”  Therefore, it’s not surprising that emphasis on publishing (at any cost) has been strongly criticized for potentially devaluing scholarship while promoting unethical behaviors such as data fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.

Fisher also reminded us that publication practices vary by disciplines (and even within sub-disciplines) and that the rules of authorship are not always cut and dried.

The Value of Published Work

The value of published work is determined by a number of factors, including two metrics that ostensibly measure the prestige of the publication, the publication’s impact factor, and the productivity of the researcher— the individual’s H-index.

Impact Factor.  A Journal Impact Factor, JIF, is effectively the average number of citations per article published in that journal and is calculated on a 2-year rolling basis.  Fisher cautioned that some journals may routinely publish review articles, letters, and opinions that can drive up the number of citations.  Additionally, if a journal publishes a study that is later debunked, that journal may end up with a greater number of citations, but it’s because they are alluding to the poor work it published.  Finally, the average number of citations/paper in a journal says very little about any individual article in that journal.

H-index.  The H-index, put forward by physicist Jorge E. Hirsch in 2005, measures individual productivity and citation impact of an individual’s publications.  The H-index takes into account the number of publications one has and the number of citations per publication – in general, a higher the number is perceived as reflecting that an individual is producing more impactful work.  (The H-index can also be applied to the productivity and impact of a journal itself).  As with impact factor, the H-index has been the subject of scrutiny.  When considering an individual’s H-index, it’s important to consider a number of factors including:

  • Stage of career-  newer authors will likely have lower H-indices compared to mid-level to senior authors;
  • Publication frequency- publication practices vary by disciplines; and
  • Citation frequency- some disciplines cite more heavily than others and self-citations can drive up the H-index.

We are reminded, again, that total number of publications and citations does not directly equate to the quality of the publications and that the H-index does not take into account the placement of the individual in the author list (e.g. first author, last author, etc.), which also varies in significance by discipline.

Despite the drawbacks and caveats associated with each of these metrics, they are often used to make hiring and promotion decisions, assign award and recognition, and to influence funding decisions on proposals and contracts.

Criteria for Authorship

The criteria for authorship vary by discipline and by publication.  Many, if not all, peer-reviewed publications provide clear guidelines on the criteria for publication, as well as authorship criteria.  Setting criteria for authorship matters not only for giving authorship credit, but in determining accountability for published work.  For example, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJS) define the role of authors and contributors, with authorship criteria for publishing in ICMJS journals including the following stipulations:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work;
  • Writing or editing the work for intellectual content;
  • Approval of final version to be published; and
  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspect of the work.

For ICMJS journals, all of the above criteria must be met when determining authorship.

Like authorship criteria, order of authorship on a publication also varies by discipline and journal.  In some disciplines, the name that appears first equates to the greatest contributor, for others the most significant contributor is listed last.  Finally, some disciplines like high energy physics, generally list authors alphabetically and also have clear guidelines on what it takes to be included in that list.

Fisher’s take home message is that we understand that one size really does not fit all when it comes to publication and authorship criteria, and thus a key to avoiding authorship disputes is having up-front discussions and agreements regarding authorship criteria and order.

Promoting integrity in research and the publication of it is important to CSU.  By understanding the pressures authors face, along with the factors that go into authorship and how works are valued, we can work together as a community to avoid unethical and unfair practices as well as allegations of misconduct while upholding the high standards of research and publication for which CSU is known.

Blog written by Tricia Callahan, Office of Sponsored Programs, and Dr. Ellen Fisher, Office of the Vice President for Research, Colorado State University.

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