Authorship of Scientific Papers

Christina Cheung shares her ethics & society case study, which she completed as part of our Young Scientist Program.

For any aspiring scientist, authorship is crucial in many ways. In a scientific world where literature is one of the most trusted ways to share information, the people responsible for the work are given authorship of that particular paper. Potential publications often have stringent criteria and are put through the ringer by peer reviews to ensure quality control of the information. Nowadays, because science is increasingly specialized, reliance on other scientists’ publications are needed for research. Therefore, quality work and accurate information is essential not only for the authors but their peers as well. Authorship is also one of the primary ways for recognition in academia. Often, one of the qualifications that is emphasized heavily in a position in academia is the candidate’s quantity and quality of publications; which would entail looking at their authorship in scientific literature. For better or for worse, a person’s success is often influenced by authorship of publications, making it crucial that it is accurately portrayed.

With so much influence, one would assume that the rules for authorship should be black and white; instead, many times there tend to be gray areas that make it difficult to determine authorship. These gray areas can stem from the different ethical systems that apply to authorship rules. Of all the ethical systems, two of the normative ethical theories are most relevant: utilitarianism and virtue ethics. For a utilitarianism system, one can say that authorship should come from how much one has contributed by the end of the experiment. Therefore, in terms of authorship, if the success of the experiment is the ultimate end, then guidelines would shape around allowing a scientist to gain authorship if they can successfully replicate the experiment. This would then show their competency and merit in the context of the experiment. If a written manuscript is the ultimate end, then guidelines for authorship would shape around how much the scientist contributed to the final manuscript in terms of physical amounts like word count or even number of figures. This would then show literally how much a scientist has contributed to the final manuscript and therefore, if there is enough, should be granted authorship. In a virtue ethics system, guidelines would revolve around a system that emphasizes the role of one’s character to determine whether or not it was moral. Therefore, a person can be granted authorship simply because they were trying to be helpful. This could be seen in a situation where a mentor helps provide guidance to a project or a colleague that provided meaningful conversations that led to the success of the experiment. Because virtue can be seen as culturally defined, this could lead to inconsistent guidelines in publications and authorship in increasingly globally collaborative research environment.

A topic that comes up often in the discussion of the ethical systems that are pertinent to authorship, include the question of what is considered to be fair in the overall context of acknowledging those who contributed to the experiment that is being described in the paper. In any given experiment, there are many people who contribute to its success that deserve to be acknowledged one way or another. From the different ethical systems, there are many different criteria that allow many different people to become authors. However, is it fair to say that they all deserve to be an author? For example, there can be situations where ownership of the data is in question. A principle investigator with a lab has a post-doc that has a paper ready to be published; but is the post-doc obligated to include the PI’s name even if he or she didn’t contribute in any way except perhaps the laboratory space? What if for whatever reason there is a person helping to write parts of the paper, but this person did not take part in planning, designing, or executing the experiment. Do they get a chance of authorship by merely writing? Lastly and even simply, lab personnel change, or experiments take a different turn based on results and the influential people change. How does one take that into account? Essentially, these situations cause fairness to be put into question, and therefore, make defining authorship a gray area that is often not addressed until problems arise.

With the knowledge of how authorship can be a rather sensitive subject with many gray areas, perhaps the best way to avoid this is having a mutual understanding before the start of any experiment as well as the beginning of any major pivotal points. Therefore, it entails that this be a more regularly discussed topic at the start rather than something that is avoided until problems arise. A more open discussion early on, between all parties, allows everyone to have clear cut expectations and less questions later on. An end-all strict set of rules for authorship may not be the best solution. Every institution should have their own guidelines and regulations catered towards their own needs and situations. However, it is important for open communication to all parties to have a mutual understanding at the start of an experiment and at the start of any major experiment direction change. This can help to mitigate issues that may arise later and determine authorship to the deserving individuals.