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Smoothing Over Content Issues with Co-author Agreements

Posted on the 07 October 2021 by Bradshaw @conservbytes

I’ve written before about guidelines for co-authorship that I’ve formulated after years of accrued hit-and-miss experiences. Here, ‘hits’ refer to positive experiences (thankfully, the majority), and the ‘misses’ obviously refer to those times where co-authorship had become a contentious issue. While guidelines can go a long way to reducing the probability of nasty in-fighting occurring, there is never a water-tight approach that can avoid all problems.

Smoothing over content issues with co-author agreements

However, the more I delve into multidisciplinary research that covers potentially controversial subjects, the more preparation for combatting future points of contention becomes necessary. What do you do when different specialists contribute material to a paper with which some other co-authors don’t necessarily agree?

Yes, this conundrum is real, and potentially flies in the face of the standard statement (and their variants) needed for most journal submissions these days:

All authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version

Note, however, that the statement almost always includes the word ‘approved’ rather than ‘agreed with’. A subtle difference, I know, but it’s an important one.

This is where a pre-submission ‘Co-Author Agreement’ comes into play. Until quite recently, I have only ever prepared one such a document before, and that one was not terribly comprehensive.

But I’ve recently been working with a large, multidisciplinary group of specialists for which an official Co-Author Agreement made a lot of sense.

What is a Co-Author Agreement? It’s essentially a contract that prospective co-authors sign prior to submission of the manuscript to a journal so that potential disagreements can be dealt with more officiously down the track.

I looked for templates online and found a few that were suitable, and then modified it to our specific conditions.

I thought it might be a good idea to pass along a generalised template for a good Co-Author Agreement that you can modify according to your needs. I’ve broken down the content into sections:

Step 1 — Title

Provide a working title for the manuscript

Step 2 — Who’s involved?

Identify the ‘Co-Author Team’ by listing all prospective co-authors (see here for tips and caveats)

Step 3 — Statement

Write a vision statement. This is really just a statement about the overall process of writing a paper:

We have agreed to collaborate in this research and publish our results in a peer-reviewed journal. We agree to the following guidelines. This agreement ends after the paper is published and media inquiries conclude. We enter into this agreement voluntarily, and we can leave the agreement voluntarily as described below.

Step 4 — Roles

This is where you establish who is doing what. It’s sort of like an Author Contribution statement in that it establishes who is leading the overall project (often this is the lead author), who is responsible for certain sections or tasks, etc. The more detailed, the better.

Step 5 – Credit and responsibility

This is a series of statements that sets the limits on the terms of being credited for co-authorship, and to what that entitles each co-author after publication. Some generalised statements can include:

Authorship is limited to those who have contributed substantially to the paper.

Author order is based on …

(a full description related to the justification in Step 4)

The following component is the real deal-maker for me, for it’s where you can alleviate issues of content disagreement should they arise:

All co-authors share some degree of responsibility for the entire paper as an accurate, verifiable research report. Co-authors are responsible for the accuracy of their contributions, but may have only limited responsibility for material in other sections. This means that while all co-authors approve the submitted version of the manuscript, they are not obliged to agree entirely with all aspects of this article.

All co-authors give their permission for publication prior to submission of each version of the paper.

All co-authors can give presentations of this paper after publication, using material in the paper, providing they reference the paper and their co-authors. Ideally, they will also notify the co-authors of these presentations beforehand.

All co-authors can respond to media inquiries relating to this paper. Press releases can be issued from each co-author’s institution, but should be coordinated through the lead author(s). Co-authors should acknowledge the contributions of other co-authors during interviews and encourage reporters to contact them.

Step 6 — Contigencies

If disagreements continue, you can also add something along these lines:

No co-author can block publication of the paper except because of concerns related to soundness — e.g., demonstrably incorrect statements (supported by evidence). Differences of opinion are not valid grounds for blockage. Concerns related to policy, management, or implications are not grounds for a co-author to block publication. If most (i.e., > 50%) co-authors agree the paper should be published based on sound information, the paper will move forward. Every reasonable effort will be made by the other co-authors to reach a consensus on moving forward with a publication.

Co-authors may voluntarily remove themselves from the project, and from co-authorship, at any point if they no longer have time for the project or if they disagree vehemently with some aspect of the project or paper. If a co-author voluntarily leaves the project or is asked to leave the Co-author Team because they are opposed to the paper being published, the co-authors will need to discuss with the dissenting member if her/his contributions can still be used, and perhaps described in the Acknowledgements, or will have to be removed from the paper.

Step 7 — Communication

And don’t forget that before, during, and even after publication, who does what in terms of communication (within and outside the co-author team) should be clearly articulated:

All co-authors agree to reply to emails and video/telephone calls concerning the project, especially when approaching final drafts and revisions of the paper, within a reasonable period of time, such as within one week.

All co-authors agree to notify the rest of the team prior to sharing the manuscript with people outside the Co-Author Team. Co-authors will be given a chance to comment prior to sharing.

Co-authors are free to develop their own collaborations and directions using the ideas in the paper, once it is published. Co-authors should make every reasonable effort to inform each other when starting new collaborations and spin-off projects that result from this paper. In practice, the co-authors may continue to work together on follow-up projects, but this needs to be discussed among the group, and should not be assumed.

Step 8 — Conflicts of Interest

All co-authors will disclose to the Co-author Team any real or perceived conflicts of interest related to this project and paper.

All co-authors will disclose to the Co-author Team whether they or any close family members or associates will benefit financially from this project and paper.

And there you have it. Not only can you modify these generic statements to your specific situation, you an also add/delete items as you see fit. As long as everyone signs up, it’s up to you as a team.

In most cases, these sorts of contracts are probably not needed, especially for small co-author teams and groups who have a well-established history of collaboration. If you do decide to invoke a Co-Author Agreement, I advise doing it early on in the development phase rather than waiting to do one just before submission.

CJA Bradshaw


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