It is important that everyone who has contributed to a research project is appropriately recognized and fairly credited for their work. Credit: iQoncept/Adobe Stock

Problematic practices

Authorship standards in scholarly publishing can vary across disciplines. For example, in many biology papers, the last author is traditionally assumed to be the one that has organized and led the research project. In contrast, in the physical sciences, including the Earth and space sciences, the last author is considered to have contributed the least, unless the list is alphabetical. Readers are simply expected to know these distinctions.

Authorship practices are also evolving as research papers become more complex, bringing together multiple techniques and data sets, interdisciplinary approaches, international teams, and ever-longer lists of co-authors. Authors are expected to navigate the conventions and expectations of different disciplines.

Authorship issues are also at the core of many of the ethical and other difficult issues that publishers see. One problem is including honorary authors (Zen, 1988, p. 202). Another is ghost authors, who are often from industry partners or services and were involved in framing interpretations but are not recognized. This hides relevant information about influence or conflict of interest from readers. Finally, legitimate authors may be omitted because of perceived mores around funding and collaboration, or for other reasons.

Who has taken what role in the research? Where do responsibilities lie?

All of these issues make it difficult for readers and academic administrators to determine who has taken what role in the research and where responsibilities for the work lie, and in turn to recognize contributions and confer credit, especially to junior scientists.

Toward common standards

Recently a number of leading publishers, including AGU, participated in an effort led by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to propose common authorship standards and practices. The result is now published (McNutt et al., 2018).

The key recommendations include common criteria of authorship that are relevant to multiple disciplines; specific responsibilities for the corresponding author; use of ORCID to identify authors accurately across the scholarly record; and use of the Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT) to provide standardized information on author contributions.

Another key recommendation is that universities and departments regularly, at least annually, provide instruction to faculty, post-doctoral students, and new students on authorship ethics, expectations, and leading practices.

CRediT taxonomy in AGU journals

Many of the recommendations follow practices and recommendations that have been adopted by AGU for some time. However, the adoption of increased transparency around author roles using the CRediT taxonomy is more recent.

The CRediT taxonomy recognizes diverse roles that may contribute to authorship

The CRediT taxonomy was developed by testing against actual author contribution statements in journals across multiple disciplines. It captures and recognizes a variety of diverse roles that may contribute to authorship, including data acquisition, software development, planning, and resources.

Although the taxonomy does not capture how the definition of a sufficient contribution varies across disciplines nor how different contributions have variable worth in different cultures, the CRediT taxonomy does provide a common starting point.

AGU Journals implemented the CRediT taxonomy as an option for all papers last year. Starting soon, these will published and included as metadata for each author in those papers, as recommended by McNutt et al. (2018), and we are working to include these in the CrossRef record. Additional more detailed author contribution statements are possible and welcome.

Recognizing contributors across cultures

Another common authorship challenge that is by no means unique to the Earth sciences is appropriate recognition for researchers, and especially students, from countries where international field campaigns or other collaborations are carried out. They often provide key support and put in tremendous effort and time away from their own scientific work.

A related issue is that the monetary or intellectual value of in-kind contributions provided locally are often not recognized by international researchers or funding agencies. Determining the cash equivalent value of local input, such as salaries, field expertise, infrastructure; and including authorship discussions upfront ensures all parties recognize this value and ensures better collaboration.

Funding agencies and proposals generally do not acknowledge such in-kind support and different funding regimes (such as year-round salaries), but scientists can create a more equitable working environment when these contributions are explicitly acknowledged between collaborators.

Harder to monetize is the value of local knowledge

Harder to monetize is the value of the local knowledge, for example, where outcrops are located, which ones are accessible, where comparable outcrops are, safe access, and so forth.

These discussions and knowledge may well be worthy of more than a mention in the acknowledgements. There is an analogy with lab work, where authorship is usually appropriate and recognized for in-kind, or even paid, analyses, as the value of the knowledge of the instrument is often sufficient for co-authorship. But field knowledge is rarely seen this way.

Even though being recognized as co-authors has large implications for generating funding and career recognition, local scientists and students may be unlikely or unwilling to discuss authorship with international project leaders for cultural reasons or other sensitivities such as power dynamics or research funding.

A positive example is the Code of Research Ethics developed for working with the San people of southern Africa which details the responsibilities of the researcher when conducting community-based studies including the appropriate recognition for participants.

The proposed authorship criteria in McNutt et al. (2018) and CRediT taxonomy allow for inclusion of authors who provide key logistical support for research, including in acquiring samples, data, software, and providing in-kind support. As noted, authors can also include more detailed contribution statements.

Next steps

One goal is increased transparency around contributions in scholarly research.

One goal of these practices is increased transparency around contributions in scholarly research. The new recommended practices are also meant to encourage discussions around authorship within research groups, while projects are still in the research phase. These can be fostered further by the regular discussion of authorship practices in universities, institutions, societies, publishers, and departments worldwide.

We hope that these efforts will provide structure for courses and workshops to facilitate broader discussions and adoption. AGU will work with partners to assist in this sharing.

—Brooks Hanson, Executive Vice President Science, American Geophysical Union; email:; and Susan Webb, International Secretary, American Geophysical Union, and University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa


Hanson, B.,Webb, S. (2018), Recognizing contributions and giving credit, Eos, 99, Published on 27 August 2018.

Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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