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Authorship Diplomacy

Cross-national differences complicate allocation of credit and responsibility

Melissa Anderson, Felly Chiteng Kot, Marta A. Shaw, Christine C. Lepkowski, Raymond G. De Vries

Errors of Omission

One of the most obvious problems in collaborative authorship is omitting authors from a paper. The classic form of omission occurs when two collaborators are in conflict (professional or personal) and one leaves the other’s name off a paper out of spite. Such cases are possible in almost any collaboration—domestic or international. But other forms of omission are more directly linked to cross-national research. Qualifications for authorship, based on scientific contribution or professional status, differ internationally. One scientist told us about working with collaborators in another country who were unwilling to give authorship credit to graduate students simply because of their junior status. He tried to correct the injustice without triggering professional retaliation against the students: “You really almost have to be subversive to help younger people in a way that doesn’t ruin their lives at home, which is not so simple—but I think it is a huge integrity issue.”

We also heard about researchers who left others’ names off publications in order to advance their own careers. In some countries, a senior scientist may feel entitled to take full credit for a junior colleague's work. But the reverse can also happen: Sometimes young scientists train in labs outside their native countries, then publish the results on their own once they return home.

Authors who are omitted without having given their consent often feel wronged, but sometimes authors agree to be left off a publication in exchange for some other form of compensation, usually financial. This arrangement, known as ghost authorship, is a problem in the U.S. as well as in other parts of the world. Last year, Shen Yang of Wuhan University in China released estimates that Chinese academics spent more than $145 million on ghostwritten papers in the previous year. That sum is considerable, especially considering reports of low pay to ghostwriters. For example, Associated Press reporter Gillian Wong last year wrote about a Chinese ghostwriter who received the equivalent of $45 per paper for composing professors’ research articles. One of our focus-group participants commented that pressures and financial rewards for publications increase Chinese academics’ willingness to pay for ghostwriters.

Authors may also remove themselves—either voluntarily or under pressure—from a publication because they fear repercussions for having participated in politically or religiously sensitive research. International collaborators whose research findings may embarrass their governments—for example by exposing weaknesses in health care systems—sometimes ask to be omitted from publications for the sake of their careers.

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