May 26, 2016
Dr. Jennifer C van Velkinburgh, Filipodia Publishing
This question really equates to the answer of ‘What does authorship mean?’ Authorship can be justified by designing a study, performing experiments, drafting an article, or providing advice on important intellectual content of the study or paper. The latter of these can be provided by an editor, if we are talking about extensive content editing and not merely proofreading. An editor can go so far as providing significant and important intellectual content to the paper by employing their unique expertise in the topical field in order to fit a study’s findings into the context of the historical and recent literature or to highlight overlooked interconnections or controversies in the field. It is important to note that many editors in science and medicine are themselves PhDs and MDs with their own active, grant-funded research projects, but with a uniquely extensive and broad understanding of many disciplines beyond their field of research focus; such editors who are multidisciplinary intellectuals are able to interpret data in a meaningful and unique manner that the original authors themselves may not have been able to do. In this way, an editor can act as a mentor and/or a collaborator on a research project, who helps to strengthen the study for subsequent peer-review and helps to improve its ability to make a significant impact on the field upon publication.
However, being listed as an author is not always desirable – or smart – for an editor’s career and can have a negative impact on their own reputation in research integrity. The key issue to think about here is that all authors on a paper assume full and equal responsibility for the integrity of the work to which their name is attached. That is to say, if an ethical breach occurs (small or large, by mistake or on purpose) all authors, even those with no prior knowledge of it, are held equally responsible and suffer the same consequences. Therefore, any person who choses to be an author on a paper must feel sufficiently confident in all of the data presented and in the integrity of all of the other authors on the paper. It is imperative for all authors listed on a paper to see all of the raw data, including experiments that ultimately were not chosen for inclusion in the final paper as well as all of the calculations and statistics, all of the experimenters’ notes in their original form in their lab notebooks, so as to understand the procedures followed and their potential weaknesses, and all of the documentation for obtainment of the data, to ensure ethical and accurate protocols were followed.
If someone does not have intimate knowledge of an entire research project, they should not be swayed by the glamour of being listed as an author. This goes for editors, down-the-hall collaborators, technicians, graduate students, post-docs, research assistants, administrators, and any other type of colleague that may have been peripherally involved in the study at any point. Being listed as an author on a paper is a weighty responsibility and should not ever be taken lightly. As such, it is the responsibility of each author on a paper, and as a collective, to determine if they truly meet the criteria for authorship.