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The question

When a journal (such as one of the Nature family) asks for information about authors' contributions, what is the most effective way to answer this, to ensure that the co-authorship is assigned as intended, and to ensure that reality is represented: that the work is a product of the intellectual environment of the whole team; and that all members have contributed in various degrees to the analytical methods used, to the research concept, and to the experiment design. Is what I've just written there sufficient, or is there a more judicious phrasing that is accepted by heavyweight journal publishers such as the Nature Group?

The context

The primary context is publications from a team that works on the principle that all members of the team are to be named authors on all papers coming out of the team.

I'm very specifically looking for answers from editors who handle such papers; or from members of teams with similar rules. Answers from others are of course possible, but I'd value direct personal experience.

Here's the Vancouver Group's (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors) statement on the subject:

Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.

When a large, multicenter group has conducted the work, the group should identify the individuals who accept direct responsibility for the manuscript. These individuals should fully meet the criteria for authorship/contributorship defined above, and editors will ask these individuals to complete journal-specific author and conflict-of-interest disclosure forms. When submitting a manuscript authored by a group, the corresponding author should clearly indicate the preferred citation and identify all individual authors as well as the group name. Journals generally list other members of the group in the Acknowledgments. The NLM indexes the group name and the names of individuals the group has identified as being directly responsible for the manuscript; it also lists the names of collaborators if they are listed in Acknowledgments.

Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group alone does not constitute authorship.

All persons designated as authors should qualify for authorship, and all those who qualify should be listed.

Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content.

The caveats:

1. My field is not medicine: I've used the Vancouver Group's guidelines, as I haven't yet found any in my field.

2. note that this is emphatically not about the ethics, pros and cons of such a rule. If you want to discuss that, please do so in chat. I may join you there as time allows

Related literature:

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    I'd suggest asking the editor. It sounds to me like the phrasing in the first paragraph defeats the purpose of asking for author contributions, so I'd guess that the editor may be unhappy with it, but it's not something I have much experience with. I'd assume the editor would also want confirmation that no author is being listed just because the team has a policy of listing all members (but rather than they have all made contributions sufficient to justify authorship according to the journal standards regardless of this policy, and the policy merely reflects this duty for team membership). – Anonymous Mathematician May 10 '13 at 15:04
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    How does this information appear in other articles published in the same journal? – cbeleites supports Monica May 11 '13 at 16:54
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If there is a requirement to list the contribution of each author, it seems the ethical way to handle it is, well, to list the contribution of each author. If some authors did not contribute directly to the paper, you should state that.

It is unethical to try to conceal that some authors did not make a direct contribution. Please note: Your team policy is what it is, and I'm not trying to judge the ethics of your team's policy. I'm just saying that, whatever your team's policy is, you must disclose it forthrightly, without evasion. That's exactly the point of disclosure requirements!

(If you're not comfortable stating your team's policy explicitly, that might be a hint that it's time to consider changing the policy -- but until then, you must disclose it frankly and honestly.)

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    There is no attempt at concealment or evasion. Please can you suggest a constructive rephrasing if I've mistakenly given that impression? – EnergyNumbers May 10 '13 at 17:20
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    I don't have enough information about the specific team members and how they contributed in your particular situation. But have you considered listing the contribution of each? e.g., X performed the experiment in Section 3, Y and Z performed the experiment in Section 4, X and U formulated the original problem and provided direction and guidance, V provided helpful feedback on an early draft of the paper, W assisted with data analysis. – D.W. May 10 '13 at 17:54
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Your phrasing is fine, but you could be more explicit. Let's say there are four authors: ABC, DEF, GHI, and JKL. You might say something like

ABC, DEF, GHI, and JKL designed the study, developed the methodology, collected the data, performed the analysis, and wrote the manuscript.

It seems nitpicky, silly, and egregious to go through a paper that may contain dozens of experiments/simulations and list which person did which. That would be akin to noting who wrote each sentence. However, if there is a key component that only a subset of your team participated on, then, as D.W. suggests, it would be unethical not to list it that way:

ABC, DEF, GHI, and JKL designed the study, developed the methodology, performed the analysis, and wrote the manuscript. ABC and GHI collected the data.

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You can use the Contributor Roles Taxonomy (or CRediT) approach as a reference to state what was the role of each co-author in your paper. Journals like Plos ONE are adopting this approach or using a modified version. You can read more about this here.

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