#KEYLIMEPODCAST 360: Me, Myself and I

Anyone who has submitted to a journal knows that authorship plays an important role; however, some studies show that many authors take part in controversial practices such as honorary authorship. In this week’s episode, Jon shares a study that examined first author’s accounts of authorship decisions on a recent multi-author paper. The paper sheds light on the complicated nature of authorship decisions.

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Konopasky et. al., I, we and they: A linguistic and narrative exploration of the authorship process Med Educ. 2022 Apr;56(4):456-464


Jon Sherbino (@sherbino)


Early in my career one of the most awkward research conversations I would have, often too late, would be about order of authorship.  It would lead to this political theatre, where a pecking order (with all the appropriate and literal allusions to the chicken metaphor) would be established without frank, open conversation, but by innuendo and perception.  Now, later in my career, this is a conversation that I deliberately initiate (take deep breath) nearly the conclusion of the first meeting of the research team.  While the discomfort is markedly lessened (and likely reflects my change in power/position as a senior author), it is still a “thing.”

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) has provided criteria to determine authorship standards to get away from nominal/honorary/abusive authorship strategies.  Journals typically require a declaration from each author regarding these criteria.  However, what is still missing in the discourse on authorship is how to navigate issues of identify, agency, position, power etc. as an author.  Enter Konopasky, O’Brien, Artino, Driessen, Watling and Maggio. If anyone can do it, this multinational authorship dream team can.  (Side note:  I do wonder what the order of authorship conversation was like… the inception-like dream within a dream with a ….)   


From the authors: “How do first authors narrate their own and others’ agency in the process of publishing a paper?”

Key Points on the Methods

The authors use social practice theory to frame their study, where in contested spaces, an individual must use cultural and social resources to exercise agency. Language (especially narrative) allows an individual to construct their identity and influence engagement with others via a complex web of relationship.

This is a mixed-methods sequential study.

Data Collection:
Interview data from a larger, 2018 study was analyzed. North American first authors of multi-authored papers from 2016-17 in AM, Medical Education and JAMA family journals were purposively recruited (n=26). Gender and academic rank were equally represented. Semi-structured phone interviews were completed until no new insights were gleaned.

Data Analysis:
Phase 1
Verbatim transcriptions, in response to a question about authorship conversation, were analyzed by two independent researchers to identify subjects and predicates for each main clause. Disagreements were resolved by consensus. Transcriptions ranged from 164-710 words (m=382).

Phase 2
Two researchers independently read each transcript as a narrative to identify a title (the theme of the story) and a moral (the point of the story).

Phase 3
Using a matrix of the data collected from phase 1 and 2, points of disagreement and dissonance were explored about how authors generate agency. Types of agency in each narrative were examined by a single author to identify titles and morals that were dissonant (i.e. black swans that disprove a theory). These findings were reviewed by the other researchers.

Key Outcomes

‘Other author’ was the most frequent subject. Men used the “I” subject, while women used “we” subject for main clauses.  Men used relational verbs more (being/having/discussing), while women use material verbs more (doing).    

Konopasky et. al., I, we and they: A linguistic and narrative exploration of the authorship process

Full professors used “I” subjects less and relational verbs more, demonstrating narratives more influenced by being/having than thinking/saying.
Distributed agency describes the separate actions of a team to come together on a paper.  It was the most common type. Individual agency, the typically assumed form of agency, positioned the first author as the point of the title and moral of the narrative, yet deeper analysis often revealed integration of the first author securely within the team.  Collaborative agency was the least common form with one narrative describing a contested type of collaboration.

Konopasky et. al., I, we and they: A linguistic and narrative exploration of the authorship process

Key Conclusions

The authors conclude…
“The narratives of these participants highlight the complex and emergent nature of agency, shifting across gender, rank and type of narrative. The women in this study tell more of a collaborative, we story with verbs of doing, whereas the men tell more of an individual I story with verbs of being, having, saying and asking… Future work should take an intersectional lens, examining how race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability affect these improvisations.”

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