Discussions of authorship: strategies gleaned from dates gone wrong

by:  Kyle John Wilby, BSP, ACPR, PharmD, PhD and Mary Douglass Smith, PharmD

This post is part of our Educational Scholarship “Quick Start” series.  In this series, the editorial boards of Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning and Innovations in Pharmacy are joining together to provide advice that helps authors avoid common problems in education-related inquiry.  A “Quick Start” is not only about being efficient – it’s about enhancing the impact and effectiveness of our scholarly contributions. 

‘Awkward’, ‘cringey’, ‘uncomfortable’’ – words commonly used to describe discussions of authorship with collaborators. When publications are highly valued by institutions for evaluation, ranking, and promotion, these conversations can be tense or even relationship damaging, especially if not dealt with up front. In addition, when enlisting colleagues for pre-review and other roles, the lines can be blurred between authorship, an acknowledgement, or nothing at all. 

Authorship defined

Positive collaborations start with a shared understanding of authorship.  Not only do the writers have to determine the needed contributions and order of authors, they should think about the future of the project. Who has the “rights” to the project to submit to conferences or other presentations? 

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) defines authorship as (1):

  • “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.”

The warning signs

Starting a new project can feel like a first date: anticipation, hope, and excitement for the future. But, there is potential for upcoming disputes and failed accountability. As there are many different ‘types’ of dates, there are also many different ‘types’ of authors.(2) 

The PhantomAn author who commits to the project but does not contribute after the initial discussions and does not respond to emails or reminders. 
A date that seemingly goes well….but never to be heard from again…despite multiple attempts.
The Phoenix An author who starts strong,  moves into ‘phantom’ territory and then reappears in time for manuscript submission. 
A date that ghosts you…but reappears weeks to months later as if nothing ever happened.
The MinimalistAn author who contributes little to project conception or simply agrees with others. Editing comments are focused mostly on their credentials and author order. 
A date that messages, when needed, but effort is minimal and thumbs up emoji messages are common.
The Desperado An author who urgently needs first authored publications, but fails to uphold the last, and very important, tenet from ICMJE: agreeing to be accountable for all aspects of the work. 
A date that over-messages and hangs on at all costs, usually with excessive emojis!
The Benefactor An author with expectations to be on a paper due to their status or position in the organization, with little to no contribution to the project or manuscript. 
A date that might enhance your Instagram presence, but offers little else for the relationship. 

The communication solution

Working on a project with a difficult co-author creates the need for uncomfortable conversations. Whether it is addressing specific incidents already occurring or trying to prevent future problems, the solution may lie in the way we communicate with team members. As in most relationships, communication is key to understanding expectations, acknowledging contributions, and organizing plans. Importantly, there can be ethical concerns and violations in including authors who contributed only by marginal support or lending their name to the project. 

Useful strategies for supporting strong contributorship (2, 3):

  • Set clear expectations about roles and responsibilities from the beginning. Some tasks may have more “weight” than others.
  • Facilitate ‘contributions to date’ dialogue and document these as the project progresses to generate awareness of the work occurring among all team members.
  • Review your own contributions regularly and ensure your own accountability.
  • Have a clear dissemination strategy (to future conferences and presentations) with designated leads.
  • Include students, residents, or junior faculty members in these discussions for experience before they embark on their own projects. 

While no model may exist to help you find the perfect date, specific criteria or tools could offer guidance to determine one’s contributions to a project.(2-4) These tools may help authors conceptualize contribution and understand the importance of involvement across the whole project. A tool gaining popularity is the CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) author statement that offers the ability to share accurate and detailed individual contributions to the collaborative work.(5) Using a structured framework, such as CRediT, to initiate discussions and monitor contributions can promote the awareness required for avoiding disputes and resolving conflicts. 

Discussions of authorship can be complex and require tactful conversations. Individuals may have their own perceptions about being included, which are informed by their discipline, culture, or institution. For the relationship to thrive, in both dating and scholarship, it is best to face the uncomfortable discussions upfront and transparently. Which strategies will you try with your next big project? 


  1. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Defining the roles of authors and contributors.
  2. Elsevier. Factsheet: Authorship. March 2019.
  3. Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). Authorship and contributorship.
  4. Winston JR RB. A suggested procedure for determining order of authorship in research publications. J Counsel Dev 1985;63:515-518.
  5. Elsevier. CRediT Author Statement.


Kyle Wilby is an Editorial Board Member at Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning, Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy, Exploratory Research in Clinical and Social Pharmacy, and an Associate Editor for Pharmacy Education

Mary Douglass Smith is an Editorial Board Member at Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning.

Kyle Wilby is an Associate Professor and Associate Dean (Undergraduate Programs) at the School of Pharmacy, University of Otago in New Zealand. In May 2021, he will be joining the College of Pharmacy at Dalhousie University in Canada. His scholarly interests include: assessor cognition in rater-based assessment, strategic planning and accreditation, minority stress theory and its application to LGBTAQI+ health.

 Mary Douglass Smith is the Director of Experiential Education and Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice at Presbyterian College School of Pharmacy in Clinton, SC. Her research interests include burnout, well-being and personality assessments. She enjoys sitting on the beach with a good book and playing Scattegories with her three daughters. 


Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s