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I am editing a manuscript for a journal that I just received and which hasn't been sent out to reviewers yet. To me, there were two aspects of the paper that irritated me a bit. The first being that it was submitted by a single author, who mentioned two names in the acknowledgements and thanked them for 'conducting the experiments' and 'providing the data' reported in the paper. This strikes me as quite unusual. Even if they were student assistants, in my field, the practice would usually be to make them co-authors of the paper. On top of that the single author's contribution is not fully clear or explicitly stated. Would it make sense to point this out and ask for author contributions? Or even suggest inclusion of these names as co-authors? How would you best go about this? I should note that the journal provides the following guidelines:

The Publisher does not prescribe the kinds of contributions that warrant authorship. It is recommended that authors adhere to the guidelines for authorship that are applicable in their specific research field. In absence of specific guidelines it is recommended to adhere to the following guidelines*:

All authors whose names appear on the submission

  1. made substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data; or the creation of new software used in the work;

  2. drafted the work or revised it critically for important intellectual content;

  3. approved the version to be published; and

  4. agree 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.

and

Author contributions
In absence of specific instructions and in research fields where it is possible to describe discrete efforts, the Publisher recommends authors to include contribution statements in the work that specifies the contribution of every author in order to promote transparency. These contributions should be listed at the separate title page.

Examples of such statement(s) are shown below:

• Free text:

All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation, data collection and analysis were performed by [full name], [full name] and [full name]. The first draft of the manuscript was written by [full name] and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
[...] For articles that are based primarily on the student’s dissertation or thesis, it is recommended that the student is usually listed as principal author: A Graduate Student’s Guide to Determining Authorship Credit and Authorship Order, APA Science Student Council 2006

I am thinking of quoting this to the author and requesting explicit clarification of the authorship contributions.

Lastly, the author did not share data/analysis, and wrote that these are only available upon reasonable request due to pricacy concerns. I think it would be possible to anonymise the data. Can I insist they share it?

I have worked as a reviewer for many years, but my editor appointment was quite recent, so I am still figuring out what I can and cannot suggest and demand. I want to use my position to improve transparency, repoducibility etc, but not abuse my power.

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  • I am also an editor and had a similar dilemma with a paper and posted a question here that generated some helpful replies. You can read them at academia.stackexchange.com/questions/170772/…
    – Eggy
    May 16, 2023 at 15:08
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    Can you tell us the field? I come from biology, and to me, what you describe is no dilema at all: if they provided data and did the analysis, they should be authors and most probably first authors, with the person who wrote the manuscript and presumably oversaw the work as the last author. Since you're asking, I assume there's more wriggle room in your field, so knowing the field will help.
    – terdon
    May 16, 2023 at 16:01
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    I second the request to provide the field. Data sharing culture differs very much between fields. In psychology, for instance, people may be reluctant to share data not out of privacy concerns (although these make for a convenient fig leaf), but in order to conduct more analyses and squeeze more publications out of a dataset before someone else beats them to it using their own data. May 16, 2023 at 19:52
  • I find the connection between 'conducting the experiments' and 'providing the data' a bit confusing. In experimental work, that is pretty much the same thing if it is "raw" data. May 18, 2023 at 9:54

3 Answers 3

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As comments have mentioned, knowing the exact field would be beneficial. But I think there is still a general answer to your question. I too am a very new editor, so take this with a grain of salt.

I think it would be appropriate to request a detailed author contribution statement. "Ghostwriting" is (as far as I can tell) universally considered an ethical breach. If you suspect that something in this vein has occurred, you should address it. As editor it is part of your job to ensure that the requirements of your journal are met. You suspect the submitting author is not being transparent (or that someone else should be included as author) and so are obligated to act on that suspicion. You may additionally request clarification on the contributions of those mentioned in the acknowledgments.

That being said, it is the author's ultimate responsibility to ensure they are following ethical authorship guidelines. In general authorship (and authorship disputes) should be handled by the authors. You probably should not tell them to include these other persons unless you have significant evidence that they were improperly excluded. If you have this evidence, perhaps you should simply reject the paper and cite your concerns. What exactly you do or how you go about doing this may be dependent on your journal/publisher policies regarding these issues. The publisher of your journal may even have a page dedicated to general guidance. It's worth mentioning, the paper has not been published yet so this potential ethical minefield does not have to become your problem.

As for requesting data, if your journal has a firm policy in place about data sharing, insist that it is followed. Outside of that, you can certainly encourage data sharing but it would likely be an overstep to outright demand it - unless you have serious concerns about the validity of the data. Again, in that case, you may consider simply rejecting the paper.

The takeaway here is that as an editor, rejecting a paper (or passing it on to review) is at your discretion. You can, and should, take any steps you feel necessary to ensure that the journals standards are upheld and that the ethical guidelines are followed. You are not obligated to solve problems though and can simply inform the author(s) that you will not proceed with the submission.

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I want to use my position to improve transparency, repoducibility etc, but not abuse my power.

I think you are approaching this the right way. Perhaps you can get a bit more advice before you approach the author again? Do you have someone at the journal/publisher who has been there fore longer who might advise you? Can you ask for advise from some editorial board members? Spell out one or two options on how you propose to proceed and ask for their opinion and any alternative suggestions. This should give you some pointers (and backing) for how to tackle this particular case.

Beyond this particular paper, can you use this situation to improve/change how things are happening at your journal? Can you make new journal guidelines on primary/raw data availability such that the "upon reasonable request" becomes a thing of the past?

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This is how I see this case as an editor, from the information given. (I'm not saying that this is how it generally should be handled, as I'm probably from a different field and don't know what the standard is in yours.)

'conducting the experiments' and 'providing the data'

I don't think that these would necessarily qualify somebody for authorship. Both of these do not imply any conceptual impact on the work. Possibly these persons have just done what they were told, or handed over something that already existed. Further I'd give the author the benefit of the doubt, so if they decide that these people should not be co-authors, I'd assume that this is for good reasons (I have no difficulty to imagine such reasons in this case), unless these people complain to you, of course. Note also that general practices regarding these things may not only vary from field to field but also between countries and even universities.

Furthermore my understanding always has been that an explicit indication of the contributions of the authors is not needed for single author papers, as the understanding there should be that the author did everything substantial (other than routine things such as "conducting the experiments" assuming that this doesn't require much thinking on behalf of the person who did that). So I wouldn't ask the author for a clarification of contributions either, because as the only author, the default is "all that is relevant and not explicitly credited to others". I don't see in what you write any indication that something is wrong here.

Lastly, the author did not share data/analysis, and wrote that these are only available upon reasonable request due to pricacy concerns. I think it would be possible to anonymise the data. Can I insist they share it?

I'd think that this should be official general journal policy, in which case you can surely insist. You can insist as well if it is not yet official policy (I mean you are the editor, so ultimately it's your job to decide what goes in and what doesn't), but as an author it would annoy me to some extent in this case because there wasn't a visible general policy to this effect.

So I'd recommend to implement this as a general policy, regardless of whether you ask for it in this case or not.

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