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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

Undeserved Credit

An omitted author is clearly denied the recognition he or she deserves, but the addition of undeserving authors can also be damaging. Extra names dilute the credit allocated to deserving authors and obscure responsibility for the work. We identify four categories of the added-author problem, distinguishing them according to the motivations for adding an author. These categories overlap to some extent because motivations can be multiple and may not be fully known.

Surprise authorship is when a researcher finds out after publication that his or her name appears on a paper. In some cases, collaborators from different countries do not observe the same practices with regard to coauthorship and review of manuscripts. One scientist told us about a paper published by international colleagues: “I found it by stumbling across the paper in the literature. There it is. This is my name, and there’s the paper, and I have never seen this paper. ”

Gift authorship occurs when someone is given more credit on a paper than he or she deserves. Sometimes a principal investigator decides that it is someone’s turn to be on a publication and arranges for that person's name to appear—even if he or she has not done enough to deserve authorship. In other cases, a senior researcher may decide that his collaborators need publications more than he does, so he allocates publication credit generously (or overly generously) to his collaborators. For instance, in some countries it is common practice to include individuals who have only had administrative oversight. One scientist we interviewed complained about too-liberal inclusion standards among his international colleagues: “Sometimes I am very strict about them, basically saying that I’m not going to allow it. Other times I know there is a political reason why they do it, and so unfortunately I may just let it go by.” Gift authorship is less benign when it involves an expected quid pro quo in the form of future assistance, favors or advantages.

Honorary authorship is often equated with gift authorship, but the motivations are different. Honorary authorship goes to individuals with higher status, as a way of honoring them personally or in their roles as superiors. One scientist told us about working with collaborators in Europe for whom it was standard practice to include “out of respect” the student, the supervisor, the supervisor’s mentor and the department chair.

Often, however, the honor bestowed through unearned authorship is not freely given; rather, it is demanded by supervisors, administrators or funders. This issue came up frequently in our interviews and focus groups. An epidemiologist told us,

People may find that in an international context, if there is a head of the laboratory, that person may expect to go on anything regardless of their contribution or lack of contribution.… So there are issues of sensitivity of where somebody is in terms of the hierarchy.

A focus-group participant explained:

The culture is different. You may be dealing with a researcher who in fact has several layers of bosses. And when it comes to negotiating the dollars, they all get involved. When it comes to publications, they all get to have their name on the paper.

In a 2010 Nature article, author Karen Kaplan relayed suggestions from academics on how to get tenure—including “name a senior department member as a coauthor on your papers if you’re in Europe.”

In legitimizing authorship, a guest author may be listed because of the credibility that his or her position or status will bring to the publication. As one of our respondents put it,

People really want to have your name on their paper, sometimes on papers where you … didn’t even know that they were doing the study. But they’re using a little bit of the reagent you gave them which, you know, you would give anyone freely.… I think that they want your name on a paper because it may legitimize things.

Another biomedical scientist told us about her experience of being named an author of a paper by a research group in another country, to which she had sent plasmids. She thought the study was done incorrectly, and the findings directly contradicted a paper she had published. She continued,

They were upset because what they wanted was my name on the paper so that they could submit it to a journal that was a little bit higher up in the hierarchy, because I already had a reputation in the field. So … this was very uncomfortable because I was saying to them, ‘No, your work isn’t good enough.’ And I was trying to find ways not to say that, but that’s frankly what I felt.

In other cases, legitimizing authorship comes into play when an author is added to mask the illegitimate contributions of others. For example, pharmaceutical firms may recruit researchers to serve as figurehead authors of company-authored papers in order to hide potential conflicts of interest. The figurehead is usually paid well to allow his or her name to appear, frequently replacing the actual authors who may be acknowledged in a footnote or may be absent altogether.

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