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Authorship Issues and Conflicts of Interest

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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. We now turn our attention to these matters.

Advances in biotechnology, communication, instrumentation, 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 teams of scientists from various institutions sometimes spanning two or more 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 or corresponding author of the resulting journal article? And 3) How should the rest of the authorship order be 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 criteria for establishing 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 (e.g., ICMJE and other references in a later section). Although these sets of guidelines have similar criteria for authorship, there is sufficient overlap to offer readers a certain number of sensible recommendations. In considering these guidelines, readers are advised to consult their professional associations for any specific authorship guidance that these entities may have 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.