Co-authorship in science communication

Authorship is a really important issue when publishing academic work, particularly when multiple authors are involved. It’s about giving appropriate credit for intellectual property, but also about authors taking responsibility for their work. Leaving off an author’s name who did contribute to the research is just as bad as including an author who didn’t contribute anything at all. Most institutions and academic journals have standards and guidelines to help authors understand these issues.

But how does a scientist navigate the co-authorship issue when translating their work beyond their discipline?

Say you have co-authored an academic paper that’s just been published in a journal, and now you want to translate those findings into a popular science article for a public audience. Who should initiate the scicomm piece? Do all authors on the paper have to be involved?

Before starting my science career, I worked in journalism and corporate communications, so here are some thoughts on scicomm co-authorship from my experiences on both sides of the fence. N.B. these are informed opinions, not rules or standards.

Primary vs. secondary literature

Academic papers are primary literature, the original report of results published at the time of the study. In contrast, scicomm articles are secondary literature, texts that interpret and translate the primary source, often published later in time. The authors of a piece of secondary literature don’t have to be exactly the same authors as those on the related primary source. In many cases, e.g. scicomm by journalists or professional science writers, they are different people altogether.

But the basic principles of authorship apply regardless of genre – only people who actually contribute to writing the scicomm article should be given authorship. As long as you refer to or acknowledge your paper co-authors, it’s not essential for every author from the original paper to also be a co-author on the scicomm article. And, depending on the media used, all co-authors don’t need to be named – acknowledging them can be as simple as saying ‘our research’ instead of ‘my research’.

Should you notify or ask permission from paper co-authors?

Are you lead author of the paper and lead author of the scicomm article? You don’t need to ask permission from co-authors to publish a scicomm article about your own paper, especially if you are writing a post on your own personal blog. However, depending on how many co-authors you have and what role they took in the research, you may want to notify them as a matter of courtesy and offer them the option to be involved.

Are you a co-author of the paper and lead author of the scicomm article? You should definitely ask permission, at least from the paper’s lead author, before publishing anything, even if it’s on your own blog. Depending on the nature of the research, you might also like to give the lead author a copy of the scicomm article to review before publishing it.

Are you a co-author of the paper and a co-author of the scicomm article? You’ve already been notified!

Controversial research

If your research is sensitive or political you should discuss the scicomm article with all co-authors before publishing, even if they won’t all be co-authors on the scicomm article. You might also need to discuss your scicomm plans with your funding body or employer. This discussion should address all co-authors’ concerns and seek agreement on where the piece will be published and what it will include. You should also clearly state funding sources and potential conflicts of interest in the article.

If your funding body or employer has asked you not to engage in scicomm, it might be helpful to seek independent advice. Technically, if you are the lead author of research already published in primary literature, it is unethical for a funding body to stop you from translating that research to other media. After all, any journalist, science writer, or other scientist can find the primary source and write something about it, so why not you?

Scicomm articles are journalism, not scholarly literature, so there are multiple shades of grey to deal with here. But most journalists and science writers will follow a code of ethics when they write about your research, and scientists can apply a similar code when engaging in scicomm. In Australia, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s code of ethics for journalists addresses some of these issues.

PhD students

As a PhD student, you don’t need ‘permission’ from your supervisors to engage in scicomm, especially if your project is predominantly created and managed by you. However, if your project is part of a larger, multi-faceted project conceived and managed by your supervisor, you should definitely check with your supervisor first and make sure they are happy for you to do scicomm during the project. Unless there is a valid reason, they shouldn’t prevent you from doing scicomm about your research, but they can ask you not to talk about other results from the broader project that you weren’t involved in.

Regardless of what type of project you’re working on, it’s a good idea to have a discussion with at least your principal supervisor before you start doing scicomm. If you were already active in scicomm before starting your PhD, let them know when you start the project. Make sure you discuss any major concerns they might have and also talk about how your scicomm activities will benefit your career. You can also discuss authorship of any scicomm articles you produce. While you should definitely acknowledge your supervisors, they don’t need to be co-authors on every piece of scicomm, but this will be an individual decision.

Expert comment as scicomm

Sometimes academics are approached by media to comment or write a scicomm article about their general research topic, rather than about a specific paper. In these situations, inviting your immediate colleagues to co-author is not essential and will depend on the style and content of the scicomm. However, when journalists are looking for commentary, they often seek out experts they already know, or ones who are already active in the public domain. So if you are a senior academic in your particular field of research, this can be a good opportunity to promote early career researchers in your field by inviting them to co-author, or even lead, the piece.

What are your experiences with scicomm co-authorship? Please add your thoughts in the comments.


© Manu Saunders 2016. Thanks to Ian Lunt for discussing some of these ideas with me.

2 thoughts on “Co-authorship in science communication

  1. ScientistSeesSquirrel June 5, 2016 / 8:17 PM

    Interesting piece, Manu – I hadn’t even thought about most of these issues. Your recommendations seem very sensible to me and I’m going to bookmark this for later. As for media asking one “to comment or write a scicomm piece” – the former, all the time; but I don’t think I’ve ever been asked the latter. I’ve found most media want complete control over the writing, and firmly decline even offers to look over a draft. Is your experience different?


    • Manu Saunders June 5, 2016 / 9:01 PM

      Thanks Stephen. Agree, most interactions with journalists are requests for comment. But I’ve been approached by some media (e.g. The Conversation, or specialist nature/ecology magazines) to write a piece on a particular topic, based on my expertise or the fact that I’ve written for them before on this topic. And I’ve always been given the opportunity to provide comments/edits on the final proof before it is published.


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