It started as a simple email exchange over authorship. But it angered one researcher so much that it ended a 20-year collaboration.

In January 2017, a chemist based in Mexico had finished writing a paper describing the structure of a molecule. Sylvain Bernès, at the Instituto de Física Luis Rivera Terrazas, asked his co-author—the head of the lab where the molecule had been synthesized 10 years ago—to review the draft and include any co-authors involved in the initial work.

The researcher added three co-authors to the paper. Bernès became concerned. He wanted to follow the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) authorship recommendations as strictly as possible. As far as Bernès could tell, none of the new authors had actually contributed to the work, potentially violating the recommendation about authorship contributions.

The current ICMJE authorship recommendations, which were updated in August 2013 to include an author’s responsibility to ensure the accuracy of the work, are as follows:

Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
Final approval of the version to be published; AND
Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.
Bernès emailed the director of the lab and the co-authors to voice his concerns:

I feel that 3 co-authors never participated in that work

He then asked for the authors to explain what “they actually contributed to the work”:

This was probably a bad idea.

His colleague responded:

“de inmediato no hay ninguna duda al respecto: se suspende toda relación de trabajo contigo“. (“there is no doubt about it: any working relationship with you is cancelled”).

In one brief email exchange, a 20-year collaboration had ended over authorship guidelines.

Bernès noted that part of the problem is that his colleague may not have been aware of the guidelines. The bigger issue, however, is that “local patterns and customs regarding scholar publications” may trump recommendations:

…in Mexico, guest authorship is accepted within a lab where members have been collaborating for a long time, and questioning for the real participation of individuals may be seen as an offense

Bernès told us:

…any matter about authorship in Mexico is very very sensitive. Frequently, the content of an article to be submitted is not really discussed between the researchers, while the list of co-authors, the order, and who is the author for correspondence, may be debated over months.

We don’t know how often authors face unintended consequences from guidelines, but according to Elizabeth Wager, a publications consultant at Sideview and a member of the board of directors of The Center For Scientific Integrity, our parent non-profit organization:

While including senior or long-term colleagues is viewed as unacceptable guest authorship in some countries (and according to ICMJE criteria) this may be viewed as professional courtesy in others, or at least essential for career progression.

Darren Taichman, secretary at ICMJE, told us:

The goal of the ICMJE’s recommendations is to help promote best practices and ethical standards in the conduct and reporting of medical research. The answer to instances where best practices are not followed is not to lower the standards. Rather, we should all – investigators, authors, universities, funders and editors- continue our efforts at promoting what we believe to be best practices.

Regarding the “substantive contribution” recommendation, Taichman said:

The ICMJE’s criteria for authorship aim to ensure that in addition to providing credit for substantive contributions, authorship requires responsibility and accountability for what is published. “Honorary” or “guest” authorship accomplishes neither of these aims. It is unfortunate that in some environments, pressure to list individuals who have not made substantive contributions as “guest” or “honorary” authors continues. We believe that the solution is for the leaders of research groups and institutions where such practices continue to set examples and make clear that appropriate standards are to be met, rather than for the standards to be lowered to meet current local custom.

But, Wager noted, there can also be “grey areas of what constitutes ‘substantial’”:

… especially in multicentre and large studies, there is often a degree of arbitrariness between those who meet the 1st criterion (ie play an active part in the research) and those who are invited or selected to take part in the publication and therefore also meet the 2nd criterion.

That is why Wager prefers the “contributorship model”—where the contribution of each author is clearly delineated:

Then if somebody is listed as head of the lab or department despite not having made much contribution to this particular project, this is transparent.

In this case, the paper was only in its second round of peer review when the dispute over authorship arose, so Bernès simply withdrew the submission.

Unintended consequences of another recommendation

Bernès ran into another issue with the ICMJE authorship guidelines in January 2017. In this instance, Bernès spotted inaccuracies in a paper he co-authored after it had been published. Bernès caught the issue late because he had never received the manuscript to review prior to publication. According to Taichman, secretary at ICMJE:

ICMJE recommends that editors send copies of all correspondence to all listed authors. A group of authors needs to ensure that each member has reviewed and approved the final manuscript.

Again, Bernès contacted the lead author to correct the issues and asked why he had not been sent the manuscript to approve. Bernès learned that the PhD student who had done the bulk of the work was under the pressure of a short deadline. In this case, Bernès was able to resolve the issue without ruining the relationship. According to Bernès:

we will continue to collaborate in a good spirit.

Still, Wager said:

In my experience the criterion that all authors must approve the submission (and revisions) causes the fewest problems… And one reason it’s useful is to let authors review so they can spot problems.

But, Wager noted, the only way to ensure enforcement is to create an authorship agreement:

Many pharma companies now track publications using special software packages and they won’t submit until all authors have said they approve. I think it is up to authors to explain that they expect to approve the final (and revised) submissions and to be consulted about timing. I reckon it’s OK to email authors with a reasonable deadline (of at least a few days) and say that if you haven’t heard from them by that date you will submit. But I’d certainly expect to approve any article with my name on it.