Who gets to author a paper? A note on the Vancouver recommendations

At COLING 2018, we require submitted work to follow the Vancouver Convention on authorship – i.e. who gets to be an author on a paper. This guest post by Željko Agić of ITU Copenhagen introduces the topic.

Who gets to author a paper? A note on the Vancouver recommendations

One of the basic principles of publishing scientific research is that research papers are authored and signed by researchers.

Recently, the tenet of authorship has sparked some very interesting discussions in our community. In light of the increased use of preprint servers, we have been questioning the *ACL conference publication workflows. These mostly had to do with the peer review biases, but also with authorship: Should we enable blind preprint publications?

The notion of unattributed publications mostly does not sit well with researchers. We do not even know how to cite such papers, while we can invoke entire research programs in our paper narratives through a single last name.

Authorship is of crucial importance in research, and not just in writing up our related work sections. This goes without saying to all us fellow researchers. While in everyday language an author is simply a writer or an instigator of a piece of work, the question is slightly more nuanced in publishing scientific work:

  • What activities qualify one for paper authorship?
  • If there are multiple contributors, how should they be ordered?
  • Who decides on the list of paper authors?

These questions have sparked many controversies over the centuries of scientific research. An F. D. C. Willard, short for Felis Domesticus Chester, has authored a physics paper, similar to Galadriel Mirkwood, a Tolkien-loving Afgan hound versed in medical research. Others have built on the shoulders of giants such as Mickey Mouse and his prolific group.

Yet, authorship is no laughing matter: It can make and break research careers, and its (un)fair treatment can make a difference between a wonderful research group and an uneasy one at the least. A fair and transparent approach to authorship is of particular importance to early-stage researchers. There, the tall tales of PhD students might include the following conjectures:

  • The PIs in medical research just sign all the papers their students author.
  • In algorithms research the author ordering is always alphabetical.
  • Conference papers do not make explicit the individual author contributions.
  • The first and the last author matter the most.

The curiosities and the conjectures listed above all stem from the fact that there seems to be no awareness of any standard rulebook to play by in publishing research. This in turn gives rise to the many different traditions in different fields.

Yet, there is a rulebook!

One prominent attempt to put forth a set of guidelines for determining authorship are the Vancouver Group recommendations. The Vancouver Group are the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), who in 1985 introduced a set of criteria for authorship. The criteria have seen many updates over the years, to match the latest developments in research and publishing. Their scope far surpasses the topic of authorship, and spans across the scientific publication process: reviewing, editorial work, publishing, copyright, and the like.

While the recommendations do stem from the medical field, they are nowadays broadened and thus widely adopted. The following is an excerpt from the recommendations in relation to authorship criteria.

The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 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.


All those designated as authors should meet all four criteria for authorship, and all who meet the four criteria should be identified as authors. Those who do not meet all four criteria should be acknowledged.


These authorship criteria are intended to reserve the status of authorship for those who deserve credit and can take responsibility for the work. The criteria are not intended for use as a means to disqualify colleagues from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them the opportunity to meet criterion #s 2 or 3.

Note that there is an AND operator tying the four criteria, but there are some ORs within the individual entries. Thus, in essence, to be adherent with the Vancouver recommendations for authorship, one has to meet all four requirements, while in meeting each of the four, one is allowed to meet them minimally.

To take one example:

If you substantially contributed to 1) data analysis, and to 2) revising the paper draft, and then you subsequently 3) approved of the final version and 4) agreed to be held accountable for all the work, then congrats! you have met the authorship criteria!

One could take others routes through the four criteria, some arguably easier, while some even harder.

In my own view, we as a field should hope for the Vancouver recommendations to have already been adopted in NLP research, if only implicitly through the way our research groups and collaborations work.

Yet, are they? What are your thoughts? In your view, are the Vancouver recommendations well-matched with the COLING 2018 paper types? In general, are there aspects of your work in NLP that are left uncovered by the authorship criteria? Might there be at least some controversy and discussion potential to this matchup? 🙂

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