Issues of Authorship

Issues of Authorship: Who and in What Order?
Laura C. Hein and Peggy Chinn

Nurse Author & Editor, 2017, 27(3), 6

Recently Laura, the first author on this article, asked Peggy, the second author, a “quick question,” expecting a quick response: “APA says authorship is in sequence by contribution. A colleague is adamant that nursing follows a different convention. What is correct for nursing?”

This question from Laura prompted a lengthy dialogue that unearthed the many challenges related to authorship, so we decided to organize our discussion in this format, knowing that it is a persistent and often “sticky” issue to deal with! Authorship confounds everyone involved in writing for publication at one point or another, since it touches on nuances of relationship, and the inherent power dynamics of relationships, in ways that usually remain under the surface and politely ignored! Here we address two fundamental issues in responding to Laura’s question— first the matter of qualifications for authorship, and then the challenge of the order of authors.

Criteria for Authorship

Every person who is named as an author should play a substantial role in the development and publication of a published work. Even though there have been situations in which a person is named as an author without making a substantial contribution, this is no longer acceptable practice in scholarly publications.

As indicated by recent discussions at the annual International Academy of Nursing Editors (INANE) conference, most nursing journals follow the guidelines from the International Council of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) for authorship, and in fact a number require that all authors sign a form verifying they qualify as an author by meeting all four of the authorship criteria. These criteria are:

  • 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 (ICMJE, n.d.)

If there are individuals who meet one or more, but not all of these criteria, they should be acknowledged as non-author contributors. A common situation of this type occurs when you have people, such as research assistants who have participated in data collection or data input, but beyond that have not been involved in the writing. Peers who review drafts can also be thanked in the acknowledgements although many will defer and say it is not necessary. Note that you need to have permission from anyone you wish to thank to include their name in an acknowledgement.

Another common situation occurs for authors of dissertations and the members of their advisory committee. It is an ethical breach for faculty to insist on being named as authors, as often faculty actually do not meet all four of the ICMJE guidelines. The ethics of this have to do with the unequal exercise of power by faculty—individuals who are ethically responsible to avoid even the slightest appearance of exploiting students (Kennedy, 2015). Even so, many nursing faculty have fallen into the trap that comes from unethical practices in the basic sciences and in some liberal arts disciplines. Regretfully, there remain faculty in nursing who tell students that they require authorship on any publication from a dissertation they oversee and some even go so far as to suggest that they be the first author. But the bottom line is: student authors of dissertations should always be the primary author of any article based on their dissertation (Nishikawa, Codier, Mark, & Shannon, 2014).

While a faculty adviser may meet all of the criteria for authorship, which suggests that the faculty adviser if actively engaged in writing collaboratively with the student, most dissertation committee members do not. They can be legitimately acknowledged as having made a contribution to the published work, and the nature of their contribution can be stated in the acknowledgements. A committee member who serves to advise on statistical analysis and interpretation, or a member who provides guidance in the implementation of the research method are good examples of contributors who should be acknowledged. Once again, remember that permission is needed to list someone by name in the acknowledgements. In the event that the contributors meet all four ICMJE criteria, then of course they would qualify to be listed as authors. The most important takeaway from all of this is that these issues need to be very clearly and carefully thought through.

The key to addressing the matter of authorship and making sure that careful thought has been given to these issues is to have the conversation very early in any project that is anticipated to result in publication. In faculty and student relationships, this discussion ideally occurs when a student approaches a faculty member to ask them to chair their dissertation or DNP Project. Faculty who are knowledgeable about the ethics and criteria for authorship can take the lead in assuring students that the student owns the right to any papers they produce as a student. But it is also incumbent on students to be well informed on this matter, and to be prepared to have critical authorship conversations with their faculty advisors.

This is not always an “easy” conversation, particularly since often there is an unequal level of power or influence among any group of potential co-authors. Students need to be able to stand up for themselves and articulate the issues relating to authorship. For students who have faculty who insist on being listed as authors without doing the work to meet the ICMJE criteria, this might be a red flag to change advisers, or to at least seek mediation with a seasoned scholar who understands accepted criteria and requirements for authorship.

One factor that facilitates these discussions is having everyone involved in scholarly activities be well informed about authorship, and be clear about the ethical issues of authorship. The person taking the lead in this discussion might start by sharing the ICMJE guidelines, as well as articles published on the subject. By approaching this topic openly and in a spirit of supportive colleagueship, we believe you enhance the chances that your collaboration in this important professional activity will be a positive learning experience for all!

Order of Authors

Decisions about order of authors must be determined by the authors themselves, and the earlier in the process, the better. No other individual or group can address this issue for you! Several editors have reported needing to question the legitimacy of a named author, and a few have had instances when a named author asks to be removed as an author, or a person not named asks to be listed as an author. Editors do have an interest in assuring that all authors are rightfully named as authors, and that those who do not qualify for authorship are not named or are appropriately acknowledged. That said, editors do not get involved in determining the order of authors and will not question you about how names are listed. They expect that you, as the author group, have taken care of this piece of business prior to manuscript submission.

The process of determining the order of authors can vary widely; there are no universal rules that apply in every instance. The circumstances of each specific situation are much more compelling in guiding decisions of how authors should be ordered. The typical general notion in nursing (as much as there is one) is to order authors by their “contributions” to a project. This is very hard to follow, however, since either authors contribute fairly equally, or the nature of their contributions are different and cannot be compared. For example, someone contributes the conceptual ideas and writes a draft, which may be very long, someone else writes the method, which may be very short— how do you determine which is “more”? Here are alternative guidelines that a group of authors can consider:

  • Use the alphabet! List authors alphabetically by last name, or even reverse-alphabetically.
  • Rotate first authorship when you know your work will likely result in several publications.
  • When extent of contribution is relatively equal, place the person who has the most “need” for primary authorship first, such as the person coming up for promotion.
  • When it is clear who the “mover and shaker” leader of the team is, that person should be primary. But it is often impossible to order the remaining authors by “contribution,” so they can be ordered in any way that is mutually agreeable.

It is important to be aware that ordering of authors may vary by discipline. This is particularly a factor when working on interdisciplinary teams. For example, a study evaluating contribution and author order in JAMA publications found that the highest levels of author contribution were reflected in first authorship, being listed last author, then as second author (Baerlocher, Newton, Gautam, Tomlinson, & Detsky, 2007). As the authors note it is common in medical circles for the last author to be the senior author or the principal investigator—sometimes called “the place of pride.” Nonetheless, this is not a universal rule—it is a convention in some circumstances, but not in all. If you are working with an interdisciplinary team, start by sharing any disciplinary “conventions” that are represented on the team, and decide as a group which, if any of those conventions can serve in this particular instance.

One last bit of advice: when you have authorship conversation(s), make sure that everyone is in agreement, document decisions in writing, and then share the document with the entire group. Unfortunately, people’s memories can become “fuzzy” over time and they may “forget” decisions that were made about authorship. Having it in writing is prudent and can prevent problems further down the road.


Back to Laura’s question and how we determined authorship on this piece: none of the typical conventions really applied! We both clearly meet all four criteria for authorship, and much of the content here was extracted from our email discussion in response to the initial question, and the issues that emerged from that conversation. In the end, Laura prompted this dialogue so we agreed that she would be the first author.

Authorship on scholarly publications has created the best of relationships but also the worst of relationships. We urge anyone reading this article to find a way to discuss the criteria and ethics of authorship in your group of colleagues, providing everyone with the same foundation of understanding for this important dimension of your work.


  1. Baerlocher, M. O., Newton, M., Gautam, T., Tomlinson, G., & Detsky, A. S. (2007). The meaning of author order in medical research. Journal of Investigative Medicine: The Official Publication of the American Federation for Clinical Research, 55(4), 174–180.
  2. International Council of Medical Journal Editors (n.d.) Defining the role of authors and contributors. Retrieved August 22, 2017, from
  3. Kennedy, M. S. (2015). Inappropriate authorship in nursing journals. Nurse Author & Editor, 25(4), 2. Retrieved from
  4. Nishikawa, J., Codier, E., Mark, D., & Shannon, M. (2014). Student faculty authorship: Challenges and solutions. Nurse Author & Editor, 24(4), 3. Retrieved from

About the Authors

Laura C. Hein, PhD, RN, FAAN is an Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina with a focus on national LGBTQ health policy. She serves on the Board of Directors of GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality, and is co-chair of the LGBTQ Expert Panel of the American Academy of Nursing.

Peggy Chinn, RN, PhD, FAAN is the Editor-in-Chief of Advances in Nursing Science, author of a few books, and manager or co-manager of several websites/blogs, including INANE. She is an Author-in-Residence for Nurse Author & Editor.

NAE 2017 27 3 6 Hein Chinn

Copyright 2017: The Authors. May not be reproduced without permission.
Journal Complication Copyright 2017: John Wiley and Son Ltd