To the Editor:
We read with interest Roberts’s1 commentary, “Addressing Authorship Issues Prospectively.” Much like the hidden curriculum, there are implicit practices that govern decision making around authorship order, so taking the time to thoughtfully articulate and critically reflect upon these conventions can be valuable. In our own collaborations as faculty within a medical humanities department, we have found that sorting out authorship order can be further complicated due to differing customs in the sciences and humanities. Whereas the sciences seem to place greater value on being the progenitor of an idea when determining authorship order, researchers from humanities disciplines are more inclined to allocate first authorship to the team member who takes on a lion’s share of the writing.
We agree with Roberts that discussion of authorship order should occur upfront whenever possible. However, as she writes, such a situation can nevertheless grow quite complicated when the contributions of an expected second author expand during the creation of the manuscript. Roberts recommends having the writing team “discuss revising the authorship order to match the actual process and contributions,” but what if ongoing disagreement exists about the relative value of contributions to the paper? Does the team honor the conventions of the sciences or the humanities?
On a recent project, we found ourselves at this very interdisciplinary impasse. Unable to arrive at internal agreement about authorship order, we collaboratively constructed a blinded vignette that concisely outlined the professors’ competing arguments. The third author then sent the vignette to two colleagues at other institutions—one in a science discipline and one in the humanities—along with a request to specify which author they felt deserved first authorship. Not surprisingly, their views aligned with disciplinary convention, so we approached someone in our hybrid field (medical humanities) to serve as a “tiebreaker,” with an agreement that both primary authors would share first authorship but abide by the third colleague’s opinion with regard to the listed order of names.
As the placement order of names on a scholarly manuscript has relevance not only to one’s ego but also to how the work is publicly referenced and the credit one receives toward promotion and tenure, this issue has far-reaching implications. Therefore, reconciling competing disciplinary “worldviews” is especially important. Roberts’s article provides a road map for determining inclusion as authors, but specific guidelines are needed to clarify questions that arise about authorship order both within and across disciplines.
Kimberly R. Myers, PhD, MA
Associate professor, Department of Humanities, Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Michael J. Green, MD, MS
Professor, Departments of Humanities and Medicine, Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Daniel R. George, PhD, MSc
Associate professor, Department of Humanities, Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey, Pennsylvania; email@example.com.
1. Roberts LW. Addressing authorship issues prospectively [published online ahead of print June 28, 2016]. Acad Med. 2017;92:143146.