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Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices: A guide to ethical writing

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An instructional resource on scholarly and scientific writing would not be complete without some discussion of conflicts of interest and authorship issues, such as the conditions that merit the granting of authorship. We now turn our attention to these matters.

Advances in biotechnology, communication, and computing have allowed scientists to investigate increasingly complex problems. It is not uncommon these days for large-scale investigations to be carried out by a handful of scientists from various institutions sometimes spanning continents. Groups and individual contributors may work on the same or different key aspects of a project and these collaborations will invariably result in multiple-authored publications. Unfortunately, some of these collaborative efforts have given rise to disputes about authorship issues. The most frequent disputes center around the following questions:1) Which members of a research team merit authorship? 2) Who is designated as senior author of the resulting journal article? And 3) How is the rest of the authorship order determined?

Given that authorship, particularly the designation of senior author of a paper in scientific and scholarly publications plays such a prominent role in the current merit system, it is extremely important to have sound guidelines for establishing the conditions for authorship. For example, in writing about these issues, Steinbok (1995) questions whether various situational roles in biomedical research merit authorship. He writes: “Should the head of the department automatically be an author?Should the various clinicians involved in the care of the patients who are subjects of a paper automatically be authors?What about the person who goes through a set of charts and puts information into a database?What about the statistician who analyzes the data?” (p. 324). Others have raised questions related to the current trend for graduate and undergraduate students to be directly involved in research and in the authoring of papers.

Fortunately, individuals and a number of professional societies have proposed relevant guidelines in this area (see references below). Although these sets of guidelines are not identical there is sufficient overlap to offer readers the following set of recommendations. In considering these guidelines, readers are advised to consult their professional associations for any authorship guidelines that they may have also developed. Readers are also advised to consult the institutions with which they are affiliated, as well as the individual journals to which they intend to submit a manuscript.

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