Administrators and the Responsible Conduct of Research
Case Study:
A Possible Co-Author

A Possible Co-Author

Yolanda, a graduate student in Prof. Zhu's lab, is talking with Wanda, Prof. Zhu's secretary. She notices the title page of a manuscript atop a pile of papers on Wanda's desk. When she looks at it more closely, Yolanda is surprised to see that there are only four co-authors: her, Valerie (also in Prof. Zhu's lab), Prof. Albert, and Prof. Zhu.

Four months ago, Yolanda spent several weeks in Prof. Albert's lab at a different university learning an experimental technique that she needed for her research. This was a technique with which the Zhu lab had had no experience. For most of her visit, she worked side by side with Ben Brown, a post-doctoral fellow. Ben not only taught her the technique she needed to master, he also gave her good advice on her experimental design, critiqued her interpretations, and during the last week of her visit, helped Yolanda complete a series of experiments. Those experiments became an important part of the experimental section of this research paper into which Wanda is entering various edits.

"Wanda, I think there's an error here," Yolanda begins. "Ben Brown's still missing from the co-authors, and I know I put a note on the last draft about this. He was on the first few drafts, but somehow he got dropped."

"Oh, now that you mention it, I do recall seeing his name before," replies Wanda. "Well, what I got from Prof. Zhu before he left on his trip was what he told me was the final version. I'm supposed to finish up the manuscript, and get it sent out to the Journal of Important Research today."

"But you can't do that," exclaims Yolanda. "It wouldn't be fair. You've got to put Ben's name back on the paper before you send it."

Case Discussion
Interests of the Affected Parties
Ethical Issues

Wanda's obligation to follow Prof. Zhu's instructions is in conflict with her interest in maintaining a good atmosphere within the research group, particularly with Yolanda. Yolanda's obligation to do all she can to see that Ben Brown receives what she perceives to be appropriate attribution appears to be in conflict with her obligation to honor Prof. Zhu's decision. There may also be conflicts related to obligations to honor agreements, and communicate clearly with students and other colleagues, but there is not enough information given in the scenario to be sure of what these are.

Consequences of Actions

If Wanda figures that it can all be sorted out later, and so accedes to Yolanda's demand to add Ben Brown's name before she sends off the manuscript, she is putting herself at risk for unpleasant consequences. She will have made a change in a matter that is of great importance to researchers, authorship. As a result, Prof. Zhu is likely to be upset not only because she has made an alteration without consulting him, but because her actions would be considered to be a breach of research ethics by his lab. It is considered unethical to list someone as a co-author without his/her permission, or if he/she does not meet the criteria for co-authorship. There may be good reasons why Brown's contributions were not considered to be significant enough to warrant co-authorship.

If Wanda simply ignores Yolanda and dismisses her concerns, Yolanda is likely to be upset and resentful toward both Wanda and Prof. Zhu. There is the potential for discord within the Zhu lab as well as between Prof. Albert and Prof. Zhu and their research groups.

However, if Wanda explains that she can't make any changes without Prof. Zhu's direction, but that changes might be possible later, after Yolanda has a talk with Prof. Zhu, Yolanda may realize that she needs to talk directly with Zhu and make her case through the proper channels. After all, the manuscript still has to go through the review, revising and publishing processes, and so there is still time for changes to be made. In addition, it is not clear what agreements were made between Zhu and Albert, what Zhu knows of the work Yolanda did with Ben Brown, whether Yolanda has ever done more to address this question than just put notes on drafts of the manuscript, and whether there are reasons of which Yolanda is not aware for not including Brown as a co-author. What is needed here is some frank, open communication among the researchers concerning the work presented in the manuscript and the criteria for co-authorship. Wanda may be able to catalyze this conversation.