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RCR Casebook: Authorship and Publication

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The advancement of science depends upon publications. When scientists publish their findings, knowledge is shared that can inform future research and professional practices in medicine, public health, engineering, and many other disciplines. When scientific methods are published, researchers can evaluate the quality of results and replicate studies. Given the importance of disseminating research results, federal funding agencies view authorship and publication as a responsibility of investigators and as part of the good stewardship of research dollars.

In principle, all studies could be published anonymously. However, there are two good reasons for giving authors proper attribution for their published work. First, identifying authors holds individuals accountable for the study’s integrity and the publication’s accuracy. When authors publish an article, they declare that they have

  • Participated in the writing or editing of the manuscript
  • Contributed intellectually to the content of the manuscript (e.g., by providing the hypothesis, designing the study, or analyzing the results)
  • Reviewed and approved the final version of the manuscript 8

Second, identifying authors bestows due credit on them for their contributions to the scientific literature. The status and prestige of researchers are often directly proportionate to the quality and quantity of their publications, and committees typically evaluate publications when making determinations regarding promotion, tenure, prizes, grants and contracts.9,10

Nevertheless, the expressions “authorship is a meal ticket” and “publish or perish” convey harsh realities within some academic settings.11Pressures to publish may contribute to questionable authorship practices such as ghost authorship, which occurs when someone from an industry sponsor writes the first draft of the manuscript and is never acknowledged as an author.10,12 Other questionable practices include gift authorship—when someone is listed as an author without actually contributing to the study or manuscript10,11and “salami publication,” in which multiple publications report on essentially the same work.13

While authorship may seem a straightforward matter, determining authorship and authorship order has become increasingly complicated. Interdisciplinary collaboration may be essential when a project is large and multifaceted, requiring diverse skills and frameworks,9 but it can also lead to disputes over assigning authorship (e.g., determining the meaning of “first author” or “last author”). Projects that require the collaboration of numerous co-investigators at multiple sites in order to meet enrollment goals or to generate sufficient data can sometimes involve major contributions from as many as 20 researchers. Should all 20 individuals be listed on all publications ensuing from the study?

Even if researchers are committed to behaving with integrity and are clear about the criteria for authorship (see above), clarifying when an individual has contributed enough to a project to earn the right to contribute to the writing or editing of a manuscript is not always so straightforward. In some cases, it may be most appropriate to publish an article “on behalf of” a larger group of contributors; in other cases, an acknowledgement is most appropriate.8,14

Matters of authorship are rarely black and white, and the gray areas in between have plenty of room for ethical deliberations. Satisfactory outcomes are more likely when all contributors to a project openly discuss authorship issues at the start of a project and as data are ready to report.

The Cases and Role Play

The cases and role play in this chapter provide some common scenarios involving questionable authorship and publication practices. They offer an opportunity to apply the guidelines for authorship and negotiate authorship in difficult situations.

  • Case One: A postdoc who enjoys collaborating with researchers is unsure how to deal with her colleagues who inappropriately take credit for her work.
  • Case Two: A statistician helped colleagues to analyze their dataset and is listed as an author. Now he is under investigation for suspected data fabrication even though he played no role in generating the dataset.
  • Case Three: A mentor is dumbfounded to see himself listed as author on an article he never saw until after it was published.
  • Role Play: An assistant professor is deeply concerned when a senior and shady collaborator takes a new position. Will he also take all data and the draft manuscript the assistant professor produced?