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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

Skills for the Global Context

Authorship sits at the intersection between collective effort and individual ambition. Scientists participate in international collaborations for many reasons, including a belief that collaboration will benefit all involved. But the pursuit of individual recognition cannot be completely eliminated. Collaborators must pay careful attention to authorship in order to share credit and responsibility fairly among all team members.

The most helpful way to deal with authorship issues is to agree on general principles for authorship at the beginning of the collaboration and then to agree on authorship of each article when its content is first outlined. A U.S. scientist who is experienced at international collaboration told us, “You have to have the guts to tackle [authorship issues] before you go into it.” Another said,

I found it difficult at first. But it was very clear that if there is any doubt as to how authorship—especially credit—is going to be divvied up, it is better to approach that before, rather than after, just so everybody has a pretty good idea.

It is clear, though, that discussions alone will not clear away all authorship problems. Several resources provide additional guidance. Collaborators should consult the policies of the journals to which they plan to submit their work. International guidance is available through the the Council of Science Editors, the Committee on Publication Ethics and the International Committee on Medical Journal Editors’ Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals. The Singapore Statement, released in conjunction with the Second World Conference on Research Integrity in 2010, provides a succinct statement that responsible authorship is a duty of researchers worldwide. Scientists can join AuthorAID, a free, international research community that supports researchers from developing countries with services such as networking and mentorship.

The U.S. scientists we interviewed were aware of the ethical complexity of authorship and the importance of meeting high standards in practice. But they were also careful to take their collaborators’ perspectives into account. A focus-group participant said

the problem is that our ignorance of the way these kinds of systems work in other countries can sometimes be really detrimental to the way the research is performed and expressed and published.

Leckie provides a cautionary example, drawn from his own experience working with an Asian collaborator:

I once was designing a research activity with this fellow, and he brought to me very early on several drafts of his part of the proposal. And on it, he had the name of a division head who was associated with the overall program but had nothing to do with his research activity. The division head had no expertise relevant to the proposal and was not going to contribute anything. I told my collaborator, ‘Look, that guy’s not doing anything. Take his name off.’ And he said, ‘Well, I can’t.’ Then I said, ‘Well then, take my name off.’ And so we had a real confrontation, and in the end my collaborator took the name off, and it resulted in an attempt to fire him.

Maintaining the integrity of authorship is complicated in the global context, but the stakes can be high for all concerned. It is worth the time and effort required to get it right.

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