Authorhip in the sciences

The question of authorship is of great importance for researchers as well as their research institutions. Professor Mads Bryde Andersen LLD illustrated this at the UBVA’s 2014 symposium in his presentation on Authorships, Honour and Career (webcast in Danish).

Authorship is governed by legal rules under the Danish Copyright Act, supplemented by a number of research ethics rules and regulations, which are discussed below. Wrongful attribution of authorship may constitute research misconduct.


Articles, books, posters and the like will usually be regarded as intellectual work protected by copyright as literary works, see research and copyright.

Authors  (writers) and other contributors

Copyright is assigned to the person or persons who have created the work through personal creative work (creativity). These persons are called authors.

Persons who have not made such creative contributions, but whose contributions may for example solely be characterised as “craftsmanship”, “practical” or “technical” are not (co-)authors. Under the Copyright Act, such persons are not therefore entitled to be named as authors of the work in question. This will for example be the case for those who merely operate equipment or process research data under the direction or instructions of others. It will also be the case for those who merely assist with the layout and proofreading of a manuscript.

The Copyright Act does not protect abstract ideas, principles, theories, opinions, perceptions, and the like. Thus a person who solely contributes with, for example, ideas, suggestions or general requirements for a scientific paper is not considered to be co-author of the work under the Danish Copyright Act. For more details, see Morten Rosenmeier’s guide to copyright, Ophavsret for begyndere – en bog til ikke-jurister (3rd edition, 2014), p. 32f

Although a person may not be considered a (co-)author of a scientific publication under the Copyright Act, it may still be Good Scientific Practice to credit their efforts in other ways – see below.

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Joint works

A literary work which has more than one author, and in which the individual contributions cannot be separated as independent works, is said to be a joint work. Examples of joint works include books and articles that are the result of collaboration where the individual authors’ contributions cannot be separated as independent works.

The copyright to joint works is held collectively, as stipulated in section 6 of the Danish Copyright Act. This implies that any transaction involving the work requires agreement among the authors. Any co-author can thus, for example, refuse publication of the article. In research collaborations it is usually advisable to formulate clear agreements about author attribution and the right to publish scientific work at an early stage in the research collaboration in order to avoid later disputes. See research collaborations.

Composite works

By contrast, if the individual authors’ contributions can be separated as independent works it is said to be a composite work; a collection or anthology of scientific papers by different authors is an example. Here, the author of a specific paper in the anthology will have no (co-)authorship rights to other papers in the anthology.

Right to be acknowledged as the author of a work

According to section 3(1) of the Danish Copyright Act the author of a work has the right to be identified by name, in accordance with the requirements of proper usage, on copies of the work as well as if the work is made available to the public. This means that any person who has contributed to a scientific article with a personal creative effort has the right to be identified by name as (co-) author of the article.

This right to be acknowledged as the author of a work cannot be waived “except in respect of a use of the work which is limited in nature and extent” cf. section 3(3) of the Danish Copyright Act. Thus an author cannot enter into a binding agreement that allows another person in any context to appear as the sole author – see Morten Rosenmeier’s guide to copyright, Ophavsret for begyndere – en bog til ikke-jurister (3rd edition, 2014) p. 78ff.

If a person undertakes to write an article in another person’s name (ghostwriting), the actual author cannot with legally binding effect waive his or her right to be acknowledged as the author in general, but solely in relation to, for example, a particular publication of the article.

This refers solely to the right to be acknowledged as the author. An author can thus choose to publish a work anonymously or under a pseudonym, which is unlikely to have any practical significance in a research context.

Order of authors

The Copyright Act does not provide for the order of authors. Good scientific practice in this respect is described below.

Research ethics standards for author attributions

The legal rules on copyright are complemented by ethical standards for author attribution, which are of great practical significance in relation to scientific publications. In an international context reference is often made to the so-called Vancouver rules (“Uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals: Writing and editing for biomedical publications”) established by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) – see In Denmark, the DCSD has drawn up separate guidelines for this which are largely based on the Vancouver rules and which are aimed at health, natural and technical sciences. See the DCSD’s “Guidelines on publication matters” in “Guidelines for Good Scientific Practice” (2009). These guidelines have now been replaced by the Danish Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (2014).

Many journals have established their own guidelines for author attributions. Some journals require that a single author be designated as corresponding author (guarantor). This author will often thereby assume a special responsibility for the article according to the rules that the journal has set up. An example of this is the authorship policy of the journal Nature: Nature journals’ policy.

Compliance with research ethics to qualify for authorship

According to the Danish Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (2014), the following conditions must be met in order to qualify for (co-)authorship:

a. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work, and

b. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content, and

c. Final approval of the version to be published, and

d. Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work by ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

These criteria correspond to a large extent to the aforementioned Vancouver rules.

These criteria also apply to supervisors of, for example, PhD students and managers of the research group or department/institute that has carried out the research project.

All individuals who meet these criteria for attribution of authorship should as a general rule be recognised as authors in scientific publications. According to the Danish Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (2014), a person has a right to decline authorship, “e.g. if they disagree with (part of) the methodology or conclusions in the publication. However, substantial contributions to the work should always be disclosed, e.g. as acknowledgements“.

A wrongful indication of the author’s role may comprise research misconduct, see section 2 of the DCSD Executive Order.

Recent decisions on this topic from the DSCD include:

  • DCSD’s decision of 26 November 2012: In relation to a health science article, the DCSD found that it had not been documented that a person was wrongly attributed as co-author and that the person had participated in the design of the study (“designed study”). (Here the DCSD appears to be acting on the assumption that an attributed authorship is legitimate and that it may require specific evidence to determine otherwise, Ed.)
  • DCSD’s decision of 31 August, 2012: A researcher complained of being wrongly listed as co-author of, inter alia, two congress abstracts that related to a research project which the complainant had participated in. The DCSD stated the following:

“In relation to congress abstracts the Vancouver rules may also provide instructional interpretations with regard to attribution of authors of abstracts, but taking account that congress abstracts present preliminary observations, see below.

DCSD agreed that in practice it often happens that participants in a project are attributed as authors in the congress abstracts in an order that reflects the weight of the individual’s contributions, without necessarily consulting the participant in advance. This is not the case in connection with the writing of articles (scientific end products), where project participants are usually consulted before they appear as co-authors and also must sign a co-author declaration which is submitted to the journal along with the article itself.

As a rule, the problem is quite the opposite of the current case, namely that people who rightfully should be have been attributed in a congress abstract due to their contributions have been forgotten in the rush, but that these are mentioned as co-authors in the scientific end product (the article).

If a researcher participates in a working group in a research context, the purpose is generally to present results for publication as researchers just not do research for themselves, that is, “in seclusion”. It should not come as a surprise to anyone in a research work group that the material is initially presented at a congress with the researcher as co-author.

Presentation of scientific evidence does, however normally require that there is a consensus in the group, as no abstract is submitted to a congress if there are differences of opinion in the research group about the validity of the results (in which case you must first perform additional experiments to clarify the ”difference”).

DCSD finds that the Complainant has participated in research collaboration with the Defendant and that the Complainant thereby contributed to results that you had to expect that the Complainant was  interested in getting published together with the other researchers listed. DCSD therefore does not find that co-authorship was unwarranted.”

Substantial contributors must not be excluded

If a researcher has made such a substantial contribution to the work that he or she meets the first criterion for authorship (see above), then he or she should be given the opportunity to meet the remaining criteria for authorship as well (b-d), cf. the Danish Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (2014). In major research collaborations this principle may lead to an extensive number of co-authors. It should be noted that this principle applies solely to researchers who have contributed substantially to at least one of the following elements:

  • Idea behind the work
  • Design of the work
  • Acquisition of data for the work
  • Analysis of data for the work
  • Interpretation of data for the work


It is good practice to recognise such contributions in a specific section (for example, in the first footnote in the article), called the acknowledgments.

Recent rulings on this topic from the DCSD include:

  • DCSD’s decision of 26 November 2012: A researcher who had participated in the initial planning of the research project should in the DCSD’s view have been mentioned in the article under the acknowledgments (if the person so wished, Ed.), but the Committee found that the lack of acknowledgement in itself did not constitute a serious breach of good scientific practice.

Order of authors

The question of the order of authors is controversial, and there is no international consensus on this. The question is not regulated by copyright law. Some journals and publishers have established their own rules.

In some subject areas it is customary to list the authors in alphabetical order.

In other areas there is a tradition that the author ranking reflects the various authors’ contributions to the publication. The person who has contributed the most (and who has often prepared the first draft of the article) is acknowledged as first author. In some disciplines the final author has a special status – often reserved for an older senior researcher who has contributed some of the fundamental ideas of the project.

Common authorship declaration

It is usually appropriate to specify the division of work between the authors of the publication, for example in a note. In many cases, an actual common authorship declaration is drawn up, which describes in detail the various authors’ contributions.  See also the Vancouver rules.

Ghost-writing and gift authorships

Ghost-writing indicates that the real author waives the right to be named as the author so that someone else can appear as (sole) author. Such a general waiver is not legally binding, cf. above.

Gift authorship means that a person is listed as (co-)author, even if he or she does not meet the above requirements for authorship.

These phenomena may generally be considered to be contrary to good scientific practice – see also the DCSD Guidelines on publication matters (2009), p. 35.

Specification of academic qualifications, etc.

The specification of the authors’ title, workplace and academic qualifications must of course be correct according to the rules governing research misconduct.

Author responsibility

By publishing their scientific work, authors normally assume a number of legal obligations under the agreement signed with the publisher. These may for example involve providing a warranty that no plagiarism has been committed, and that the publication of the scientific work does not otherwise infringe the rights of others. It may give cause for concern if the scientific work contains quotations from the works of others, or if the work contains statements that could be libellous. See publication of articles and books.

In addition, authors have a responsibility to comply with good scientific practice. However, doubts may arise concerning whether an author has a responsibility to ensure that co-authors – through their contribution to the scientific work – also comply with good scientific practice. This issue, which is considered controversial both in Denmark and internationally, was the subject of a presentation (in Danish) at the UBVA symposium 2014:

You can see the subsequent panel debate here:

A number of international guidelines in this area are discussed below. In addition, the individual journal can require that one author assumes special responsibility for the full article as corresponding author (guarantorship) in this respect.

Selected international guidelines

The Singapore Statement of Research (2010) indicates only the author’s responsibility for his or her own contributions to the scientific work:

“Researchers should take responsibility for their contributions to all publications, funding applications, reports and other representations of their research. …”

The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (2011) contains among other things the following statement which seems to point in the direction of a collective responsibility:

“All authors, unless otherwise specified, should be fully responsible for the content of publication”

The Vancouver rules (December 2013) state as follows:

“In addition to being accountable for the parts of the work he or she has done, an author should be able to identify which co-authors are responsible for specific other parts of the work. In addition, authors should have confidence in the integrity of the contributions of their coauthors.”

Danish guidelines and DCSD practices

The Danish Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (2014), p. 12f states as follows:

“All authors are responsible for the content of the publication. However, the responsibility of each author should be assessed subject to their individual role in the re-search by considering their area of expertise, their experience and seniority, a possible supervisory role, and other relevant factors. Thus, in some cases, an author may have a wider responsibility than others for ensuring the integrity of the publication or specific parts of the publication.”

DCSD’s Guidelines on publication matters (2009), p. 32, which DCSD now considers a “historical document”, state as follows:

“In all other respects, an author shall be able to indicate in detail his or her own contribution and must have participated to such degree in the entirety of the work that the relevant party is able to indicate the full contents of the manuscript and be able to discuss fundamental aspects of the remaining contributions. Furthermore, all authors of an article within the limits of what is possible and fair are co-responsible for it being based on honest research so as for the risk of fraud to be minimised. If irregularities or dishonesty are proven in the research, it will be difficult for the co-authors of such work to disclaim co-responsibility. Especially in international cooperation, however, it may be impossible to be co-responsible for, e.g., a laboratory result produced in another country. In a couple of large international dishonesty cases, co-authors have been acquitted for co-responsibility upon thorough investigation of the circumstances of each case.”

The issue as been submitted to DSCD in the so-called “Klarlund case”, but the DSCD’s final decision in this case was overridden by the ruling of the Eastern High Court of 18 February 2015:

“On the basis of this, the High Court finds that since 1992 scientific dishonesty has been characterised by conscious – or bordering on grossly negligent – breach of the basic requirements for scientific research. Moreover, the High Court finds on the same basis that the scope of scientific dishonesty includes cases where it is relatively clear that it must be taken into account that the researcher in question acted intentionally or with gross negligence in connection with falsifying or distorting the scientific message. The serious adverse effect on a scientist’s reputation and thus the scientist’s future research possibilities, if the researcher should be deemed to have acted in a scientifically dishonest manner, speaks equally in favour of this according to the opinion of the High Court. This view is supported by the preparatory work on section 2(3) of the Act on Research Consultancy, etc., as amended by Act no. 552 of 17 June 2008, referring to aligning the proposed scheme with the corresponding Norwegian model, cf as stated above under Legal Basis of section 5 of the Norwegian Act on Research Ethics and associated comments. From the observations it appears, among other things, that there are “strict requirements of guilt in order for the Committee to make a ruling of dishonesty”.

The Eastern High Court concurs with the parties’ view that the concept of dishonesty to be applied is the one which was applicable at the time of submission or publication of the articles.

A decisive factor in the ruling of the High Court, however, was whether the presentation of evidence provided the High Court with the necessary clarity to form the view that Bente Klarlund Pedersen in publishing the articles acted deliberately or with gross negligence in connection with falsifying or distorting the scientific message. In assessing whether it is a deliberate act or a case of gross negligence related to falsification or distortion, the High Court has not considered it of major significance whether Bente Klarlund Pedersen, as was the case in relation to articles 3-5 and article 12 together with Mark Febbraio, was listed as final author on the articles”.

The Danish Committee on Research Misconduct (DCRM) has taken this issue into account in the following cases:

  • DCRM ruling of 7 February 2020 (case no. 2019-01): A PhD student had plagiarised other texts in some of the articles included in the student’s article-based PhD dissertation, including an article that the supervisor had co-authored. The procedure is described in the ruling as follows:

“The respondent has stated that he first became aware of the plagiarism in the PhD student’s article-based dissertation when he read the first version of the dissertation’s introduction, less than six months prior to the deadline for submitting the dissertation. The respondent and his co-supervisor then held three meetings with the PhD student, at which they talked about the problem and instructed the PhD student to remove all plagiarism. They also provided the PhD student with guidance in good scientific practice. At the second meeting, the respondent and the co-supervisor discovered that there was still plagiarism present in the dissertation, and it was repeated to the PhD student that all plagiarism should be removed. At the third meeting, the PhD student assured the respondent and the co-supervisor that all plagiarism had been removed from the dissertation. In connection with the plagiarism check, the respondent was informed that there was also plagiarism in some of the articles, including the product for which he is a co-author and to which the report relates. The co-author statement associated with the product states that the PhD student “wrote the entire draft version”. The respondent contributed a discussion of the PhD student’s ideas, suggestions for a theoretical framework and suggestions for swapping around individual sections, and corrected calculation errors in some of the tables in an earlier draft of the article. The respondent also presented the article at a conference, in the absence of the PhD student. The respondent further states that when he discovered plagiarism in the article, he instructed the PhD student to withdraw the article and upload a new, cleansed version, which the PhD student has since done.”

The Committee stated inter alia the following in its ruling:

“The co-author statement states that:

The PhD student contributed to defining the overall problem and proposed the core scientific idea to solve it. The PhD student wrote the entire draft version of the paper, and revised it in accordance with the co-author’s comments. However, in some cases a few structural adjustments were made by the co-author.

Subsequently, and on the basis of the respondent’s information concerning the final part of the supervision of the PhD student in connection with the student’s PhD project, and as the respondent, when he discovered the plagiarism in the product, instructed the PhD student to withdraw the product and submit a new, cleansed version, which the PhD student subsequently did, the Committee finds overall that the respondent has not acted intentionally or with gross negligence, cf. section 3 (1) item 1 of the Act.

On this basis, the Committee does not find that research misconduct has taken place, cf. section 16(1) of the Act.”

See also

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