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The Ethics of Authorship: Feature Overview--How Should Authorship Be Decided?

Assigning authorship can be a tricky business indeed. Whom should you include as an author on a paper, and in what order should you list multiple authors?

On the surface, it seems simple enough--list major contributors only, and list them in descending order of involvement in the project, right? The problem is that there are almost as many views on how to assign authorship as there are scientists! One researcher might interpret "major contribution" to mean anyone who performed any of the experiments in the paper, regardless of intellectual contribution to the work, whereas another may assign the order of authorship on a paper even before the first pipette has been picked up.

And journal editors cannot bear the responsibility of investigating the contributions of every author listed on every paper that comes across their desks. Although they may set forth policies on authorship for their own journals, each editor is obliged to take it on faith that the authors have been truthful in assigning authorship. The primary focus of an editor must be on evaluating the substance of a paper, not on being an authorship police officer.

Efforts by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors have resulted in criteria that have been accepted by numerous medical journals, but there is no universally agreed upon "law of the land" as yet. For now, the lines drawn on the authorship battlefield are inconsistent at best, and unethical at worst.

And it seems that everyone has a "war story" to tell. Ask just about any scientist if he or she has seen authorship abuses, and you're likely to hear quite a few stories of undeserved, "gift" authorship and of names being left off the list when people felt they truly deserved to be included.

But why is authorship such a provocative issue? The "publish or perish" culture of science places enormous value on how many papers you've authored and in which journals those reports appear. In short, authorship has become "scientific currency." And as such, it is a major factor in key decisions, such as who gets hired and who gets grant money. But there's a flip side to this, too. Although authorship gives credit where credit is (hopefully) due, it also assigns responsibility for the data contained in a paper, should questions arise. By accepting a "gift" authorship, several researchers have suffered the embarrassment of knowing little if anything about the data it includes, or worse, of being associated with fabricated data.

This is why Science's Next Wave wanted to explore the murky issue of authorship. Our modus operandi was to cook up a hypothetical authorship dilemma in the form of a case study (see sidebar), which we then presented to four authorship "experts," each of whom has written a short essay on the dilemma from a unique perspective. The experts are ...

And here's what we asked them ...

A Question of Authorship I am a graduate student at Bigtime State University. For the past 2 years, I have been working on my thesis research in a lab with five other grad students and our mutual advisor. Last week, our advisor handed us the final draft of a paper based on a project that has been my primary responsibility. I conducted most of the experiments and wrote many of the sections. To my surprise, the senior student in our lab, who was away at conferences and at the library writing up her thesis while most of the experiments were being performed, was listed as the first author. My labmates tell me that this is standard practice for a large collaborative group like ours. They also assured me that when I become the senior student, I will travel more and appear as the first author on all the group papers. I could swallow my pride and wait, I suppose, but I have already decided to leave grad school after this semester to work in industry. I was counting on using this paper to demonstrate my abilities to prospective employers. Is it ethical of me to jump my place in line and ask to be first author on this paper?

Drawing on several years of experience as a PI, Michael Gottesman, M.D., focuses on two distinct facets of the authorship debate that the dilemma faced by the student at BSU brings to light. First, what are the rules that govern who should be an author on a paper? Second, how should prior arrangements regarding authorship be formulated and implemented?

Glenn McGee, Ph.D., ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics and Editor-in-Chief of The American Journal of Bioethics, carefully dissects the concept of "author" as applied to the research enterprise. Authorship, in this context, is complicated by the hierarchical, yet team-based, structure of the modern laboratory. Defining the rules of the authorship game at the outset is crucial, and the responsibility for raising the issue and establishing workable criteria rests not only on the PI's shoulders, but also on those of the student.

From journals' perspective, Marlene Noble, Ph.D., a physical oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, who also serves as associate editor of Estuaries, points out that editors make the implicit assumption that all authors agree with the order in which their names appear on a submitted manuscript. Moreover, first authorship should, in general, be given to the individual who is responsible for designing and carrying out the research and who writes substantial sections of the article.

Linda Wilcox, ombudsperson for Harvard Medical School, School of Dental Medicine, and School of Public Health, points out that our friend at Bigtime State University is facing not only an ethical dilemma but also a potential source of conflict with the student's adviser. Wilcox's role is to help to resolve such differences of opinion, a topic that was also addressed in a recent article in Next Wave's Postdoc Network.

If there isn't enough material for you to mull over here and in the essays, you can find a great deal more information through the Council of Science Editors' Authorship Task Force.

Because science is not just about research--it's also about making decisions and pursuing topics that affect others, including the public--we at Science's Next Wave want to know what ethics topics you'd like to hear more about. Vote for your top choice in our ethics poll.

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