Fair’s Fair: Librarian Authorship, Systematic Reviews, and Applying ICMJE Authorship Criteria

After experiencing three different cases of this in as many months, I thought this might make a good post.

I care about authorship. Here’s why:

  1. I am a researcher. If I have contributed substantially to a project (we will discuss this in detail in just a moment), I expect to continue to be offered the same privileges and considerations as other authors on the paper – the opportunity to contribute to the manuscript, especially when reporting the work I did; and reviewing said manuscript when it’s completed, to make sure that my work is well represented in the cohesive whole (and also as a last chance to make sure I didn’t forget anything!).
  2. I have student loans, just sold a house in a crap real estate market, and like most early career librarians, I have been working on contract since I finished my MLIS degree. When I apply to jobs and tell interview panels that I am experienced in supporting systematic and scoping reviews, they are going to want to see that reflected in my CV.

So not only do I want credit for the work I’ve done (on average 15-20 hours per review), but publications are important to my continuing to secure gainful employment, just as it would be a research fellow or a post-doc.

But here’s the problem. Despite the many articles in the literature that discuss the importance of having librarians involved on knowledge synthesis projects (1–6), and despite agreements up front with all my teams that the work I contribute merits authorship, for some reason a lot of the honest, smart, funny, overwhelmingly lovely researchers I work with seem to forget this somewhere along the way. In several cases this last year, my authorship and/or rights don’t seem to make the cut when it came to manuscript submission time.

Like I said, these researchers aren’t bad people. So what’s going on?

According to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), authorship should be based on the following four criteria:

  • “Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • 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.” (7)

According to my reading of these criteria, in the case of a systematic review, if the librarian creates the search, runs the searches and exports the results, they have substantially contributed to the acquisition of your data for that review project. If the librarian writes the search methods portion of the manuscript, they are involved in drafting the work.

But here’s where the principal investigator comes in – if they’ve agreed that the librarian is an author and has put in all this work for the team, they need to continue to respect their authorship status and give them the chance to provide input on the manuscript as a whole, and most importantly, approve the final version before submission.

In my case, I had three projects where things kind of went off the rails to varying degrees, but which mainly sum up to:

  1. not seeing a manuscript (like, zilch beyond my own contribution) before submission; or
  2. not being included as an author come submission time

In isolation, there are pretty good reasons for this kind of thing to happen. A lot of health researchers are incredibly busy people with full clinical workloads, and many conduct research off the side of their desks. Projects get transferred, information gets lost along the way. Emails and affiliations change over time. In each of these cases, it was during a periodic follow-up email to my team that I learned what had happened, and because they are well meaning, lovely people, each have been taking steps to rectify the issue once I bring it to their attention. But what I wonder is why this is happening in the first place?

This reminds me a bit about a continuing education session I took through MLA a year ago. One of our instructors told us that it was important to cite search filters when we make use of them in systematic review strategies. I remember everyone in the room pausing in horror as we all mentally went through the reviews we had worked on where we hadn’t cited any search filters. She didn’t make us feel like horrible people or anything, but you better believe that I have since changed my practices; documenting the searches that inform my own, and citing them where applicable in my methods write-ups.

Maybe we need that. Maybe our (awesome!) research colleagues need to have that “Ah ha! …. Oh, no!” moment and think of all the people they may have inadvertently written off of a manuscript or not acknowledged, and then just move on and try their best to not to do it again.

Fair’s fair, right?


  1. Dudden RF, Protzko SL. The systematic review team: contributions of the health sciences librarian. Med Ref Serv Q. 2011;
  2. Institute of Medicine. Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews [Internet]. Washington; 2011 [cited 2017 Mar 16]. Available from: http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/Reports/2011/Finding-What-Works-in-Health-Care-Standards-for-Systematic-Reviews/Standards.aspx
  3. Koffel JB. Use of recommended search strategies in systematic reviews and the impact of librarian involvement: a cross-sectional survey of recent authors. PLoS One. United States; 2015;10(5):e0125931.
  4. Mcgowan J, Sampson M. Systematic reviews need systematic searchers(IRP). J Med Libr Assoc. Chicago; 2005;93(1):74–80.
  5. Rethlefsen ML, Farrell AM, Osterhaus Trzasko LC, Brigham TJ. Librarian co-authors correlated with higher quality reported search strategies in general internal medicine systematic reviews. J Clin Epidemiol. United States; 2015 Jun;68(6):617–26.
  6. Rethlefsen ML, Murad MH, Livingston EH. Engaging medical librarians to improve the quality of review articles. Jama [Internet]. 2014;312(10):999–1000. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25203078
  7. ICMJE. Defining the role of authors and contributors [Internet]. 2017. Available from: http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html