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ORI Introduction to RCR: Chapter 9. Authorship and Publication

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Competition in research for funding and recognition places considerable pressure on researchers to publish. Ideally, quality should matter more than quantity, but in reality quantity—the number of articles published—is often used as a measure of productivity and ability. However, no matter how important it may be to publish, some publication practices should be avoided.
Honorary authorship. The practice of listing undeserving authors on publications, called “honorary” authorship, is widely condemned and in the extreme considered by some to constitute a form of research misconduct. However, common agreement notwithstanding, honorary authorship is a significant problem in research publication today (see articles by Drenth and Flanagin, Additional Reading). Researchers are listed on publications because they:
  • are the chair of the department or program in which the research was conducted,
  • provided funding for the research,
  • are the leading researcher in the area,
  • provided reagents, or
  • served as a mentor to the primary author.
Persons in these positions can make significant contributions (see left) to a publication and may deserve recognition. However, they should not be listed if these are the only contributions they made.
Salami publication. Salami publication (sometimes called bologna or trivial publication) is the practice of dividing one significant piece of research into a number of small experiments (least publishable units or LPUs), simply to increase the number of publications. This practice may distort the value of the work by increasing the number of studies that appear to support it. It also wastes valuable time and resources. Before an article is published it is reviewed, edited, and in one form or another prepared for publication. After publication it is entered into indexes and databases, such as the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed®. Libraries and individuals purchase the journal in which it is published. If the same information could be summarized in one article as opposed to two, three, or more, everyone involved, from the publishers to libraries and the researchers who have to keep up to date on current information, benefits. Researchers therefore should avoid trivial or salami publication.
Duplicate publication. Duplicate publication is the practice of publishing the same information a second time without acknowledging the first publication. This practice not only wastes time and resources but can also distort the research record and endanger public health.
Researchers rely on meta-analyses (analyses of a group of similar experiments or studies of studies) to improve their understanding of difficult problems. One clinical trial or epidemiological study may not produce clear evidence, but the pooled results of many related studies can. However, if some of the studies in the pooled study (meta-analysis) have been published two or more times without proper notice, the results of the meta-analysis will be unfairly weighted in the direction of the duplicate publication. Therefore, duplicate publication is not only deceptive but poses real dangers to public health and safety (see articles by Jefferson and Tramer, Additional Reading).
Premature public statements. Academic or scholarly publication practices are designed to assure that the information conveyed to broader audiences through these practices is accurate and fairly presented. While the system is not foolproof and erroneous or biased information is from time to time published, standard publication practices do serve an important quality control role in research. Accordingly, researchers should follow standard publication practices when making research results public and not issue premature public statements about their work before it has been reviewed. From time to time there may be overriding circumstances, such as early indications of a significant threat to public health or safety, but for the most part research results should be made public only after they have been carefully reviewed and properly prepared for publication.