The BMJ policy on the criteria for deserving an authorship on a scientific paper raised it’s ugly head today on the Twitts.

For additional edification and background, one @mattjhodgkinson provided a link to his editorial and blog post on the topic. You may also wish to review the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors standards.

My take on these standards is two fold.

First, the exclusion of those who “merely” collect data is stupid to me. I’m not going to go into the chapter and verse but in my lab, anyway, there is a LOT of ongoing trouble shooting and refining of the methods in any study. It is very rare that I would have a paper’s worth of data generated by my techs or trainees and that they would have zero intellectual contribution. Given this, the asymmetry in the BMJ position is unfair. In essence it permits a lab head to be an author using data which s/he did not collect and maybe could not collect but excludes the technician who didn’t happen to contribute to the drafting of the manuscript. That doesn’t make sense to me. The paper wouldn’t have happened without both of the contributions.

Second, and the real topic for today, is the notion of “courtesy authorships”. It is a not infrequent punching bag. What I want to know is, where’s the evidence of a problem? What is the nature of the problem? What is going to be solved by this that justifies the denial of credit to the deserving (see above)?

@mattjhodgkinson offered:

Authors – inc. gift authors – take responsibility for papers. The gift may be poisoned.

Yes…but this is the case for any author on a multi-contributor paper. So I’m not seeing where this specifically affects so-called courtesy authors.

How about you Reader? Can you describe for me why gift authors are a systematic problem?

How frequent are genuine, totally noncontributing “gifts”? Are you sure you are not just whinging about the degree of contribution? Have you never had an offhand comment made in a discussion absolutely crystallize your thinking?

Assuming that we are not talking about pushing someone else meaningfully* out of deserved credit, where lies the harm even if it is a total gift?

Who is hurt? How are they damaged?

*by pushing them off the paper entirely or out of first-author or last-author position. Adding a 7th in the middle of the authorship list doesn’t affect jack squat folks.