What does it mean for someone to be corresponding author on a paper? Does it mean they are taking full responsibility for the project, or does it simply mean that they uploaded the files to Manuscript Central? The answer to this question is important because authorship carries with it not only credit for a paper, but responsibility for it as well. At present, there is variation in what ecologists think is conveyed by corresponding authorship (more on this below). In working on a manuscript related to last and corresponding authorship practices in ecology, I have come across the idea of having guarantors of a manuscript — that is, one or more authors of the paper who are willing and able to vouch for the integrity of the project as a whole. This idea has been suggested repeatedly over the years (Rennie et al. 1997, Cozzarelli 2004, Weltzin et al. 2006) but has not been widely adopted. My goal with this post is to explore the idea of manuscript guarantors for papers in ecology, since this is the main point I’m stuck on with this manuscript.
First, to recap what the poll found: There was substantial variation in views on current and best practices for corresponding authorship. While most (54%) respondents said that the corresponding author “uploaded the files, managed the revisions and wrote the response to reviewers, and took responsibility for the paper after publication”, the next most common response (19% of respondents) was that the current practice is that the corresponding author is the person who simply uploaded the files. Those are pretty divergent views on the amount of responsibility someone is assuming by being corresponding author!
One interesting result of the analysis is that people who received their PhDs more than 10 years ago were somewhat less likely to view corresponding authorship as taking full responsibility for a paper.
Thus, based on poll responses, at present it is not clear whether corresponding authorship is indicating that someone is taking full responsibility for a project. Given the ambiguity of the corresponding authorship signal, one way to indicate that someone is taking full responsibility for a paper would be to heed the calls of Rennie et al. and subsequent authors to have guarantors of a manuscript. When proposing this, Rennie et al. (1997) say:
All contributors are fully responsible for the portions of the work they performed and have some obligation to hold one another to standards of integrity. At the same time, special contributors must be designated and disclosed as guarantors of the whole work. Guarantors are those people who have contributed substantially, but who also have made added efforts to ensure the integrity of the entire project. They organize, oversee, double-check, and must be prepared to be accountable for all parts of the completed manuscript, before and after publication. In this way the role of the guarantor is precisely defined and differs from that of “first author” or “corresponding author” or “senior author,” there being many examples of these showing themselves unable to vouch for the whole work.
(Note: Rennie proposes doing away with “authors” in favor of “contributors”, hence the wording in the excerpt above.) I fully agree that current practices leave it unclear who is vouching for the project as a whole, and that having a guarantor system in place would encourage authors to think more carefully about this before submitting a manuscript. That would be a good thing. At the same time, the pragmatist in me wonders if this will really be adopted. I also wonder, for some complicated, multigroup publications, whether it will be possible for one person to be able to fully vouch for every analysis. For this, though, it could be possible to have multuple guarantors — for example, X is the guarantor for the empirical work and analyses reported in the study, while Y is the guarantor for the model and simulations. (I’m not sure that Rennie and colleagues would view a split like that as okay, though.)
All of which brings me to the thing that motivated me to turn this into a blog post: Do you think it would be useful to have guarantors for a manuscript? I will add a quick poll here, but I would love to hear more detailed thoughts in the comments.
Right now, this point is the only thing keeping me from posting my manuscript as a preprint — I can’t decide how strongly to argue for guarantorship for papers in ecology. What problems would having a guarantor solve? Would it create new problems? Feedback would be helpful as I think this through!
Cozzarelli, N. R. 2004. Responsible authorship of papers in PNAS. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101:10495.
Rennie, D., V. Yank, and L. Emanuel. 1997. When authorship fails – A proposal to make contributors accountable. Jama-Journal of the American Medical Association 278:579-585.
Weltzin, J. F., R. T. Belote, L. T. Williams, J. K. Keller, and E. C. Engel. 2006. Authorship in ecology: attribution, accountability, and responsibility. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4:435-441.