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Case Three: Should I Be Listed as an Author?

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RCR Casebook: Authorship and Publication

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An assistant professor in the genetics department, Thomas, is working on a project looking at colon cancer tissue specimens. After five years at the university, he is hoping to advance to associate professor when he goes up for tenure review in the next year.

One afternoon, Thomas approaches a senior colleague Dev and asks if he has some time to meet with him and advise him on one of his research projects. Eager to help a very promising young faculty member, Dev chats with Thomas about his project and encourages him. He also provides him with a polymerase reagent for genetic analysis that has been on backorder and thus unavailable for quite some time. Thomas is delighted at the way professors in the genetics department at his university collaborate and share lab supplies and equipment, no questions asked. Dev thinks nothing of it; he is glad to help out and wants to ensure the progress of the study when necessary. 

A year later, Dev is on his department’s Tenure Committee and sees that Thomas is coming up for promotion to associate professor.  As Dev looks through his young colleague’s dossier, he sees that Thomas has published a number of articles on his genetic analysis of colon cancer. However, one of the articles that was recently submitted to an eminent journal in his field has listed Dev as a co-author. Dev is astounded. He knew nothing of this, and certainly did not review and approve the final manuscript with his name on it. He closes Thomas’s file, perturbed by what he has seen.

What should Dev do?

Discussion Questions for Facilitators

  • Do you think Dev qualifies for co-authorship or is this a case of “gift” or “courtesy” authorship? 
  • If you are unsure, where can you go to find out the criteria of authorship?
  • Would you feel comfortable being listed as a co-author in Dev’s situation?
  • What if a reader suspected that the data had been “cooked” and you were asked to explain “your data”, what would you say? What are other negative outcomes connected with accepting such an authorship?
  • Why do you suppose there are professional ethical standards regarding who qualifies as an author?
  • Do different fields of science have different standards of authorship?
  • How are standards for assigning authorship likely to evolve in years to come?  Why or why not? *
  • Are there other ways to acknowledge people who have helped without naming them as a co-author?
  • Has Thomas done something unethical? Do you think it was intentional or done out of generosity and naïveté? What might be his possible motives?