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Equitable publishing part 3: Author, mentor, sponsor, replay

Coauthored with Teresa Chan (@TChanMD) and Thomas Shanahan (@clifford0584). Read equitable publishing part 1: Appraising an audience and part 2: Access rules.

Settling over a cup of coffee

After some debate (and several cups of coffee) your study team decides that they do not have enough funding for an article processing fee. The team eventually selects a high impact journal with a zero-day embargo policy in view of a green open access publication.

Pleased with your decision, your conversation turns to drafting the manuscript. The two medical students, who helped with data collection, ask how they can contribute to the draft manuscript. Some of your colleagues feel they are too junior to be included. You are not convinced that would be fair.

Authorship down

There are four basic criteria that govern who can be an author and who cannot. These are described by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) – see box.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors’ authorship criteria:
  1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  3. Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  4. 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.

Although all four criteria are required to be included as an author, the ICMJE recommends that everyone who contributed to the first criterion, be given the opportunity to contribute to the rest. Contributors can exclude themselves from authorship, by rejecting further involvement. But contributors should not be excluded without due consideration of their contribution or at the very least a conversation that considers their view.

Enhancing the author

Junior researchers and students are often excluded from authorship despite commonly contributing substantially to the first criterion – usually with data acquisition. A survey published in BMJ Open noted up to 34% of respondents were aware of someone who had contributed substantially that was not included as an author – a missed opportunity for them to learn, and for the lead author(s) to mentor (more on mentor- and sponsorship later).

Honorary authorships appear to be very common. The BMJ Open survey reported up to 74% of respondents reported being involved in research where honorary authorships were awarded. Honorary authorships relate to inclusion of guest or gift authors; persons who tend to be loosely affiliated to the study team (department heads, senior researchers, organisational leads, etc.) who do not meet full ICMJE criteria but are included anyway. 

There are multiple reasons this is done, ranging from raising the prestige of the author list, to pressure from funders and senior researchers. As a corollary, sometimes more senior and established researchers will take pity on junior colleagues and create opportunities for them as tokenistic authors on a project. Padding junior researchers’ resumes is often seen as an act of benevolence. This sets a bad precedent for those junior researchers, by undervaluing the work and effort it takes to lead a project.

Orderly authors

The order in which the authors are listed is a subject that is often more contentious than it ought to be. In the biosciences, regardless of any secondary benefits, the first author tends to be the person who did most of the work. But some argue that the first author should be the person who is most responsible for ensuring the manuscript is completed.

There is also the opportunity to have joint first authors on articles if more than one person has taken the lead on the project. The last author tends to be the person who provided senior oversight or research, or writing of the manuscript.

Other author list arguments include: references tend to be truncated to the first three to six authors, rendering the last author invisible where articles have more authors; the person who did most of the work may be considered too junior (i.e. a student) and likely to benefit less from the first author position; and gross disagreement on who contributed what. 

As a rule, journals will not get involved in authorship disputes, except where ethics are concerned (honorary authorship’s). It is therefore strongly advised that the order of authors is initially sketched out before the first draft. In this way those who hold leadership positions (usually first and last author) can step up from the outset. It is advised that the team reconvene to discuss their contributions as the project progresses. This is to ensure that there is some calibration around workloads and authorship.

Much ado about mentorship

When carrying out research, many individuals benefit heavily from mentorship – and this should be reflected in the operations and actions of your team. Consider the table below with some common strategies for who should provide mentorship and when.

ScenarioMentorship requiredAuthorship/ Credit implications
A junior researcher embarking on their first grant proposalGrant-writing coaching to best craft a successful grant.

Scientific writing assistance depending on the strength of the junior researcher’s writing skills

They may need both mentorship and sponsorship to recruit a diverse team of researchers to develop a well-rounded study team.
Depending on the grant, the mentor may wish to be strategically listed as the co-Principal Investigator (co-PI) to increase grant success.

There are some junior investigator grants that are only available to trainees or junior scientists.

For some grants a junior researcher might only be able to be a co-applicant due to university rules on grant management
A junior researcher leading their first project.A broad step approach – providing just enough guidance, but allowing the researcher to bring their own intellectual capital to the project.

Be mindful that these projects move slowly at first. Helping the junior researcher to build a mental model for how to successfully run a project will help them to be more successful in the future.
Depending on the size of the mentorship role, it would be prudent to ask up front to be the senior author on published outputs. 

Mentors may also act as the corresponding author, to assist junior authors with the submission, re-submission and proofing process.

It is important to explain this means the mentor will be there at all hours to help with any-and-all queries, concerns or drafts.
A mentor for a more-than-junior researcher supervising a trainee for the first time.Mentorship to the mentor is required this time.

Your job will be to assist the new mentor themselves in their quest to be a good mentor. 

Essentially the junior researcher becomes the mentor-in-the-middle; someone who will both receive mentorship (about supervision) and supervise a trainee at the same time.
Usually the junior researcher will be placed as first author in this sort of arrangement, with the mentor taking the role as the senior and/ or corresponding author.

The mentor of the mentor (grandmentor) moves to a more senior advisor role. Worth noting that here lies the predominant source of gift authorship. 

If appropriate to include, and as a fairly senior author, this person should be placed somewhere near the end of the middle authors.

An extra mentor mile

The pandemic proved that mentorship can be continued without physical contact. Research collaborations nowadays include authors who have never physically met (like Teresa, Tom and I). There are incredible mentorship opportunities in global emergency medicine ranging from short-term commitments, like Author Assist, or more long-term commitments, like AuthorAID.

Author Assist pairs novice authors, and authors who do not speak English as a first language, with experienced published authors to improve a manuscript submitted to the African Journal of Emergency Medicine to a better standard. The journal showed that Author Assist can reverse 1 in 4 rejection decisions through a process that minimally affects peer review. Commitment can be a few days/ weeks (language editing) to weeks/ months (more in depth assistance with a manuscript).

AuthorAID has a similar approach but extends their mentorship to the entire publication journey. Peer to peer mentorship through AuthorAID currently supports over 20,000 researchers in low- and middle-income countries. Commitment tends to be months/ years. There are currently only nine emergency medicine mentors registered with AuthorAid. This is a shame given there were 67,400 authors who published work in either North America or Europe between 2018 and 2020.

Sponsoring upwards

Sponsorship within the context of this blog refers to the act of helping another to achieve things they will not be able to achieve themselves, or will only be able to achieve with difficulty. Sponsorship is usually dispensed by more senior members of the research community, by virtue of them having access to more opportunities, contacts and resources.

If you have a sufficiently open mindset, opportunities for scholarly sponsorship of others are plentiful. As with all things, it takes time to develop the habit of sponsoring others. Here are some examples of sponsorship that can occur within research:

  1. Asking a junior researcher to co-author a commentary/ editorial you were invited to. Senior researchers, known for their scientific work are often invited to write commentaries/ editorials. You can sponsor a junior researcher by asking them to help you write the manuscript. 
  2. Asking a junior researcher to be part of research projects that you are working on. This sponsor relies on knowing the junior researchers’ interests and being able to carve out specific deliverables they can achieve.
  3. Inviting a junior researcher to participate in a peer review assignment you were invited to. Everyone has to start somewhere and junior researchers may lack the skill to take on a peer review assignment on their own. Some journals allow group peer reviews or team-based peer reviews. If you are unsure, a simple email to the handling editor will clarify whether this is acceptable. Sometimes the handling editor may prefer to replace your invitation with one for the junior researcher. This is likely with the understanding you are assisting them.
  4. Recommending emerging researchers to speak at academic events, workshops and conferences. Or asking if they can co-present with you. The added bonus is that you cannot reuse a previous talk. Fresh eyes will bring new perspectives, new literature, and new ideas to your academic event, workshop or talk.

Paying it fast forward

It goes without saying that all of the above sponsorship examples are also incredibly effective strategies to ensure that minority and disadvantaged voices are amplified. Junior researcher, can just as well refer to a colleague who is a person of colour, women or a person from a low- or middle income country.

Think about your social network. How many people within your immediate zone of influence come from a different culture, socioeconomic status, country, or belong to/ identify as a different gender? Chances are, you tend to gravitate towards others who are more like you. It is simply not true that expertise cannot be found in groups other than those like you. You’re simply suffering from something called wilful blindness (we have blogged about this before).

Thankfully there are some steps you can take to ensure you don’t perpetuate systemic biases:

  1. Start a sponsorship list of persons you would like to sponsor. Ensure you are balancing diversity within this list. It is useful to push yourself to look further than the seemingly obvious choices. These are often constructs of your own biases.
  2. A list can also help to ensure you are not simply sponsoring the same few people over and over again. 
  3. When invited to speak at academic events, workshops and conferences, specifically ask about the diversity make up of the faculty. Use this as a starting point to sponsorship. 
  4. It is also useful to consider who will provide the better narrative. Don’t be the senior researcher who denies their juniors the opportunity to present their work. A researcher from a low-income country is likely to present research about their country better than the high-income country co-investigator.
  5. When making a recommendation, refer to colleagues by their academic titles. This is especially important if you are sponsoring people of colour and women.
  6. Never recommend the first person who comes to mind. There will often be another equally (or more) qualified person that you might be able to suggest.

We hope you have found this blog series on equitable publishing useful. You can read equitable publishing part 1: Appraising an audience and part 2: Access rules here. Please let us know about your narratives and experiences in the comments section below.



Cite this article as: Stevan Bruijns, "Equitable publishing part 3: Author, mentor, sponsor, replay," in St.Emlyn's, July 21, 2021, https://www.stemlynsblog.org/equitable-publishing-part-3-author-mentor-sponsor-replay/.

Posted by Stevan Bruijns

Dr Stevan Bruijns MB ChB, DipPEC, MPhil, PhD, FRCEM is a South African/ British emergency physician (dual trained). His interests include quality improvement, emergency care development and research access in African low-resourced settings. He is the chief editor of the African Journal of Emergency Medicine. Stevan is a person of action and like for things he does to be useful to others. He has worked in a number of settings, including resource-rich and resource-poor ones. Stevan currently works at Yeovil District Hospital in Somerset, UK. He previously served on the Royal College of Emergency Medicine's Global Emergency Medicine committee.

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