Authorship implies that one will receive credit and is responsible for a published or presented work. Therefore, authorship credit may encompass not only those who do the actual writing, but also anyone who has made a substantial intellectual contribution to the work. However, the conventions for listing authors, and what constitutes “substantial intellectual contribution” can vary significantly across scientific disciplines.
Science is more of a collaborative endeavor today than in the past. And although conventions may differ in other disciplines, in sociology, principal authorship and other publication credits are based on the relative scientific or professional contributions of the individuals involved, regardless of their relative status. A principal author is someone who has contributed most significantly in terms of time and energy, creative ideas in format and content, organization of the work, amount of writing, or in some other relevant manner. “Principal authorship carries with it the responsibility of having made scientific or professional contributions at a demonstrably higher level than the other co-authors” (Canter et al., 1996:138).
The difficulty lies in establishing who deserves most credit and whose name is first on a byline when the level of contribution may be substantially the same across a group of collaborators. Furthermore, the allocation of credit can be particularly sensitive when it involves scientists at different stages of their careers. “In such situations, differences in roles and status compound the difficulties of according credit” (On Being a Scientists, 1995:13). Given these situations, the order of authorship credit is not easily determined. In general, it is best to have frank and open discussions about the division of credit early in the process. This can help prevent later difficulties.
It is also essential that a person's consent be obtained before placing his or her name on the byline, since accountability and responsibility for the contents of a published work is implied when authorship credit is given. Therefore, if anyone is accorded authorship credit, they also accept responsibility for the publication's contents, in its entirety. Given this, if errors are found, credited authors cannot disavow responsibility. An exception to this is if there are specific statements that explicitly assign responsibility for different parts of a work to different authors.