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Authors: Renee Hoch (Managing Editor, PLOS Publication Ethics Team) and Debora Walker (Executive Editor, PLOS Water)
In academic publishing, authorship is generally awarded to people who have made substantial contributions to the reported work. We seldom question this basic tenet, but over the past year PLOS has been challenged to consider whether it may be too restrictive.
Should publishers allow entities other than people to be credited with authorship?
Journal policies and industry-wide standards (ICMJE, McNutt et al. 2018) include as criteria for authorship that contributors must approve and agree to be accountable for work. Non-human entities cannot typically meet these requirements; this is one major factor that has supported publishers’ positions not to allow AI tools and technologies as authors.
However, this presents a barrier for communities (e.g. Indigenous groups) who consider collective or non-human entities as deserving of authorship based on their perspectives on personhood, knowledge systems, credit, and/or contributorship. Importantly, not all cultures were represented in the groups that established industry-wide standards.
PLOS Water recently published two articles with author lists that included Bawaka Country and the Martuwarra River. According to PLOS policy and industry standards (discussed here), these entities do not meet authorship criteria because they cannot fulfill the approval and accountability requirements. However, according to the other authors, the Bawaka Collective and the ancestral River Martuwarra led the work reported in the two articles, thereby fulfilling a central role that warrants authorship. PLOS Water decided to approve the requested author lists with the expectation that the other listed authors would fulfill the approval and accountability requirements.
While PLOS stands by our authorship policy, we may occasionally make exceptions for cases such as these. We are aware that structural biases embedded in publishing systems put underrepresented communities at a strong disadvantage, and strict application of the policy without honoring culture-specific standards may only serve to reinforce and perpetuate those biases.
Instead, in cases where we learn that a community’s needs and standards are not well served by our authorship policy, PLOS considers how the authors’ perspectives align with the principles underlying the policy. By listening to our contributors with openness and humility and taking an inclusive approach to authorship, we strive to learn from our diverse communities and honor their values and cultural norms in our publishing practices.