Fundamentals of Academic Authorship in the U.S.

What is an academic author? This guide conveys the components of academic authorship based on evidence from six employment statements regarding retention, promotion, and tenure of faculty at the University of Utah

What is an academic author? This guide details the fundamentals of academic authorship based on evidence from cross-disciplinary literature as well as six employment statements regarding retention, promotion, and tenure of faculty at the University of Utah. Three components get considered as questions for discussion. Concepts  include individuality, originality, expression of ideas, teaching-research dichotomy within knowledge advancement, and structures of motivation. 

Scholarship, as described by cultural theorist Doris Bachmann-Medick (2016), represents one form of expression within a culture. Other forms of expression include art, theatre, rituals, and festivals. Bachmann-Medick calls scholarship “theory-forming microevents” (p. 17) and contends that the writing and production of scholarship has largely been ignored and “greatly underestimated” (p. 103). Michel Foucault (1998) defines authorship as a functional mode to bring forth and circulate “certain discourses within a society” (p. 212) which fine arts researcher Estelle Barrett (2010) says “requires us [...] to focus on the forms the work takes and the institutional contexts that allow it to take such form” (p. 137). As scholarly communication librarians, we have not yet delved deeper into the theoretical questions of authorship. Instead, we have focused more on the ethics and politics of access. Exploring authorship could continue to inform the discussion of access, but, more importantly, such investigations could impact how academic libraries provide scholarly communication services. 

My initial desire to approach the fundamentals of academic authorship came after reading Derek Price’s (1986) Little Science, Big Science and Beyond… where quantifiable laws, statistics, and predictions define the world of scientometrics and infometrics. In a succinct sentence near the end of the book, Price says simply that journal articles from scientific disciplines represent an expression of a scholar or group of scholars at a particular point in time. This very human-centered definition amongst quantifiable metrics stood out to me and I wondered if it matched what others have said about scholarly communication in other disciplines and in different contexts. I consulted literature from library and information science, fine arts, communication, philosophy, literary criticism, sociology, history of authorship and copyright, and history of higher education to inform a better understanding of academic authorship. I also conducted a study of six employment statements detailing approaches to retention, promotion, and tenure in order to determine how authorship gets defined on a discipline basis within the institution where I work. The statements came from six different colleges at a single university representing humanities, science, fine arts, education, engineering, and social & behavioral sciences. 

Based on my study of the literature and the employment statements, I propose the following as fundamentals of academic authorship: author-as-employee, scholarly critique of an original expression, and academic institution-as-motivating structure. Without considering these elements together as a whole, we, as academic librarians, miss the context in which academic authors operate and this affects scholarly communication library services. In addition to presenting a theory of academic authorship, this paper also argues that a more thorough understanding of authorship and scholarly communication can be developed by conducting original, analytical bibliographical research at the institutional level. Engaging in such research could help uncover the institutional contexts Barrett referred to while also revealing the expressions Bachmann-Medick, Foucault, and Price referenced. Done across institutions as a stand-alone discipline, bibliographical research could provide historical perspective, inform general theories of authorship as well as academic authorship, and serve as a foundation from which to develop scholarly communication services within an academic library.


Bachmann-Medick, Doris. (2016). Cultural Turns: New Orientations in the Study of Culture. Boston: De Gruyter.

Barrett, Estelle and Barbara Bolt. (2010). Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Art Enquiry. London: I. B. Tauris.

Bean, Donald P. (1929). Report on American Scholarly Publishing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ede, Lisa. (1985, November 22). The Concept of Authorship: An Historical Perspective. Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English. Philadelphia, PA.  

Edgar, Neal. (1975). A History and Bibliography of American Magazines, 1810-1820. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Foucault, Michel. (1998). Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. In James D. Faubion (Ed.), Essential Works of FOUCAULT, 1954-1984, Volume Two, pgs. 206-222. New York: The New Press.

Mroczek, Eva. (2016). The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Price, Derek J. (1986). Little Science, Big Science and Beyond…. New York: Columbia University Press.

Young, Damon (2016). The Art of Reading. Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press. 

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