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The Ethics of Authorship: Does It Take a Village to Write a Paper?


There are many rules and procedures in the world of academia, and most of them date from a time when professors wore robes and rode horses, monks played the role of publishers, and graduate education was eerily similar to a page's apprenticeship to a knight. Some rules of academia have stood the test of time, such as the requirement that a scholar's work be read and tested by peers. But most have aged dramatically, and perhaps none so woefully as the notion of authorship.

Traditionally, authorship has meant writing, and the ordering of authors' names in group publications has reflected conventions about how much writing a particular author has completed. It is a deceptively simple idea: the author is the writer, and the writer writes. The problem with the idea, of course, is that writing is a complicated process whose most important element is not always the construction of sentences. At the most superficial level this is so because the process of writing in any discipline is tripartite: one must have and organize something to say, one must construct an linguistic account of that "something," and one must put that account to paper. Each of these parts of writing involves a spectacularly different set of skills and tasks, and it would surely be wrong to suppose that only the last part of writing may be properly construed as authorship.

This simple problem has been compounded in the past century, and in particular in the past 30 years, by an ever-increasing role of teamwork in research. Teams of researchers divvy up responsibilities that range from cleanliness to observation to ordering and typing results. The difficulty of determining who is author and who is just participant is compounded by a hierarchy. Senior scholars are supposed to mentor junior scholars, which means both that they are supposed to build the careers of their mentees and that they are often called upon to allow junior scholars to apprentice in senior capacities. Junior scholars are supposed to perform an enormous amount of hands-on research, which may or may not be related to their own research interests, in the interest of the senior scholar's lab. When given senior scholar-like responsibilities, junior scholars are often excluded from elements of the reward that would accrue to a senior scholar who had accomplished the same task.

Labs can be a hive of activity, host to hundreds of meandering young scholars at a vulnerable time in their career, or a small enterprise operating like a family business; whatever the organizing principle of the modern lab, new complexity clouds decisions about responsibility and reward. A senior scholar creates a kind of assembly line designed to move students through the process of mentorship, and, when that system fails, it is the senior scholar who must play Samson. There are ethical issues everywhere. Some are systematic questions about how to organize the lab: How can the lab be designed in such a way as to ensure that mentoring occurs, and in particular so that every student participates in relevant publications? Some are hard cases, the necessary outcome of any innovative system for distributing authorship: Should the system be abrogated when hard cases arise, such as the need of a young student to receive publication credit if he or she leaves the lab at the M.A. level, rather than staying on for dissertation work?

In this case both issues are present. The lab at Bigtime State University has devised a novel but problematic solution to the distribution of authorship. Like many labs with a single and narrow area of research, the senior scholar has equated participation in the projects of the lab with authorship, then created a kind of point system for allocating authorship on the work of the lab. If a student stays in the lab long enough, he or she accumulates authorship toward the end of his or her trajectory. Many ethicists and journal editors hold that authorship should not be accrued by means of proximity, just desserts, or seniority. In particular, the idea that the senior scholar doles out authorship like a grade is problematic, and one could not find an advocate of that widespread practice anywhere in bioethics or among the published writings on academic integrity. However, the very fact that the practice is so widespread commands more than simple condemnation.

Perhaps the most important systematic issue in this and many similar cases we encounter every day in science is this: How should a system of mentoring be devised, and what minimal features should it have? Relevant to authorship are several issues: the initiation of the project ("my idea"), innovative contributions ("let's do it this way"), time in the lab ("I did all of the work"), time spent writing ("I wrote most of the article"), the tedium of the work, connections with the publisher ("I know the journal editor"), seniority in the department, and specific needs, such as those in this case. While initiation and writing time are the best known barometers of authorship, all of the above are significant. It seems to me that the most significant question is whether or not the rules for authorship in the system are consistently and coherently applied, and whether or not they reflect the standards of the institutions in which the lab is situated. For this reason, the rules should be written, and they should be available and explained to every investigator--including junior students--at the time of hiring and as every point of transition takes place. Perhaps the best and most pragmatic advice about authorship is that it should be discussed before a publishing project begins. When that is impossible, lab directors and students should be able to fall back on coherent rules to resolve conflicts. There are no moral rules in the stars or in the history of publishing that offer up simple answers to problems of authorship. But it is clear enough that confusion almost always arises because the lab really has no rules, just a set of more or less thoughtless habits. Good rules, revised as time goes by, prevent dilemmas.

When a dilemma occurs, the student needs to understand several very important things. First, that beyond good rules and simple careerism is the realm of judgment. Good judgment will build a career and bad judgment will ruin one. The learning of judgment, what Aristotle called phronesis, takes place when negotiating complex problems in which one has no obvious point of reference. The goal is to identify role models and observe how they handle similar situations. Part of judgment is choosing battles. It would appear to be important enough in this case that authorship merits a big conflict with dangerous implications. But in many, many cases concerning authorship, the student or faculty member would be much better off trying to reformulate the basic rules rather than addressing the present case per se. Second, in a judgment call, the question of authorship should be construed in terms of the relative contribution of the various persons to the final publishable product. The best exercise may be to assess everyone's roles with the ombudsman of the university. Ethics is a two-way street, and it should begin with as much due process as possible. Third, the student should consider how her or she came to wonder about authorship only at the end of the process. Assumptions about how authorship works in the university should not be tested at the end of process, but rather at the outset. Even if the faculty member in the lab should have informed the student of his or her conception of authorship for a particular project, the student is equally responsible for asserting a claim to authorship at the outset of the project, and equally deficient for failing do so. The onus on young scientists to think about authorship and other questions of career is significant. There is an enormous amount of material in print about ethical, legal, and pedagogical issues in developing careers, and I find it disappointing that so many young scientists seem to care only for what is in their petri dishes until they encounter an unsavory bump in their own careers.

Publishing has entered a new era, as has scholarship. The world of authorship is as complicated today as ever, and the requirements to think through scholarly roles should precede the development and litigation of systems of scholarly advancement. If scholars think they wrote, they probably did. But whether or not they are authors is a much more complex matter that merits their attention before, rather than after, they run into trouble at the keyboard.

Glenn McGee, Ph.D., is a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics and Editor-in-Chief of The American Journal of Bioethics . His Web site is at