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The Ethics of Authorship: An Ombudsperson's Perspective


What is an "ombudsperson"? Simply put, an ombudsperson is an unbiased institutional resource you can go to if you have a problem. Indeed, a good ombudsperson doesn't take sides in a dispute, doesn't keep records or notes, will not comment about whether anyone has or has not been in contact with the office, and is independent--responsible only to the dean or president. Institutions hire ombudspeople to help with informal dispute resolution. An ombudsperson needs to be a nonjudgmental listener who can help visitors organize, generate, and analyze options for dealing with their problems. Ombudspeople do not seek only one set of solutions for each type of problem that comes their way. Rather, they work with individuals to develop options that are appropriate to the needs and interests of the individual in that particular case. The final decision lies with the visitor--an ombudsperson does not tell people what to do.

With that in mind, I'll address the case study:

This case is not just about ethics, but about achieving a solution to conflicting interests. Ideally, the graduate student would speak directly to the adviser, but often this is a frightening task. The adviser may take offense at his or her judgment being questioned. Going to someone organizationally above the adviser, who is in a position to evaluate and promote the adviser, may upset that person even more. If the graduate student is not comfortable going directly to the adviser or to those above the adviser, a visit to the ombudsperson ("Ombuds") may be an appropriate first step to sort out what do to. However, people often come to the Ombuds after bringing the matter to their adviser's attention but not getting the response for which they had hoped.

At the Ombuds office, the graduate student is able to relay thoughts and feelings in a confidential manner. The Ombuds asks the graduate student what he or she would like the outcome to be and why. By doing this, the Ombuds wants to learn the motivation behind the graduate student's desire to be first author--is it a sense of legitimate entitlement, or a pragmatic desire for a good job in industry? The Ombuds might help the graduate student explore what criteria are used in industry for hiring students who leave before attaining a degree. The two might also explore what criteria are used to determine authorship order.

Here are some questions the graduate student should consider: How important is it be a first author on a paper when trying to attain an industry job at this point in your career? Is your adviser pivotal in getting a great job through what he or she writes in a recommendation letter? Is the recommendation likely to be the same if you bring up the authorship matter? Would the manner in which you brought it up make a difference? What criteria does the school have for assigning authorship? Were they followed? Was the order decided purely by this lab's standard practice, as was suggested by other students? If yes, was this method of assigning authorship discussed before you joined the lab? What part did the senior student have, if any, in the development of the project? Did this senior student contribute the idea for the project and/or the development of the protocols before going on to concentrate on a thesis? Should this information make a difference in who should be first author?

The question posed at the end of the case is this: "Is it ethical of me [the graduate student] to jump my place in the line and ask to be first author on this paper?" Only the graduate student can answer this question. Once the student has determined whether or not first authorship is deserved or whether trying to get it is desirable, the student is in a better position to make an informed decision. The next step for the graduate student might be any of the following: do nothing, speak to the adviser, contact the department head, ask the Ombuds (in the role of a neutral party) to speak to the adviser, ask for mediation, or file a formal complaint.

If the graduate student decides that the authorship order is unfair and feels that being first author is required to get a good job, he or she may request that the adviser reconsider the order. If the student wants to speak directly to the adviser, the Ombuds can help the graduate student consider how to bring the matter up in a manner that is least likely to offend. Then, a discussion about level of contribution and proper credit on a paper can take place between the student and the adviser, especially if written criteria exist.

Alternatively, the graduate student may request that the Ombuds act as a mediator. If all the parties agree, this can often prove to be a useful alternative. If an expert in the field is needed, the parties may be asked to agree on who can join the group to neutrally fulfill that role. In the case before us, let's suppose that the adviser, graduate student, and senior student agree to mediation. At the mediation, the materials gathered about authorship can be shared. Even when guidelines exist, most people are unaware of them. Further, most people want to appear reasonable when a third party is present. They are then more willing to evaluate the issues using objective criteria, if such criteria exist.

What are some possible outcomes of the mediation process? The senior student may feel embarrassed to take credit for someone else's work. This may be especially true if the guidelines suggest that all authors need to agree to a written statement about what they did to warrant authorship on a paper and if the senior student has done as little as appears in the case study. If the guidelines suggest that a statement be made that describes how the order of authors was derived, the adviser may feel uncomfortable stating that senior students in the lab are always given the first author position even if they have done nothing for the paper. He or she may change how decisions about authorship are made in his lab in the future. On the other hand, it may be determined that the senior student deserves the first position. Or, the senior student may have had more to do with the paper than stated in the case study, but maybe not enough to be the only first author. In that case, co-authorship is possible.

There is rarely one right answer when one begins to explore the interests of a visitor to the ombudsperson's office. It is also sometimes hard to know, with certainty, who contributed what to a paper. What is clear from experience is that giving people a chance to explore their options in a neutral and confidential manner, combined with coaching on negotiation or the use of mediation, is an effective means of reducing unnecessary conflict within an institution.

Linda Wilcox is the ombudsperson for Harvard Medical School, School of Dental Medicine, and School of Public Health. You can view the Harvard Ombuds Web site.

From 1999 to 2000, 591 issues were brought to this Ombuds office. Of these, 107 were research related. New guidelines for authorship were instituted in January 2000 and disseminated that spring. They can be viewed at