In my research days, there was a time when a colleague did not want to be an author on one of our papers. They contributed to the work but disagreed with parts of the draft manuscript. It was an honest disagreement, one that we discussed professionally. I was not offended and could see where they were coming from. Long story short, we agreed they would not be an author on the final submitted paper, and life went on.
Sometimes disagreements about authorship cannot be avoided, and many have likely seen it up close. They can be handled thoughtfully and appropriately. But when they are not, they may lead to serious consequences for the people and research involved. Here, we will look at this issue more closely and reflect on how to proactively address them.
We tend to see three main ways authorship disputes happen. Sometimes a researcher (usually more junior) feels they should have been included as an author on the submitted manuscript but were not. In other disputes someone is included on a paper, but they never agreed to its content. Then there are disagreements about authorship order. The last situation appears to be more prevalent in biomedicine where the order may be dictated by the amount or nature of someone’s contributions, compared to other fields like economics or mathematics where the author order tends to be alphabetical.
Some of these authorship disputes come to our attention as research misconduct or harassment/discrimination allegations. A researcher may claim that an article was plagiarized if they are not included as an author, and thus not appropriately accredited for their work. Others may feel discriminated against for being left off the paper. Some may feel harassed if they are pressured into being an author when they do not want to be.
Generally speaking, we do not handle authorship disputes as possible research misconduct violations. The HHS Office of Research Integrity will not handle these types of disputes either. Rather, authorship disputes among research collaborators must be addressed internally at their institution and/or lab. In some cases, it becomes apparent that an authorship dispute reflects deeper workplace environment problems, which may include harassment and/or discrimination.
We receive around a dozen of these complaints each year. Although we do not handle them directly as possible research misconduct, we would like to offer some informal advice for researchers and institutions to consider. These include:
- Institutions, departments, or large multi-site research groups could establish publication committees. These committees would allow information and rules regarding all matters related to authorship to be laid out and negotiated in advance. The committees could also address issues that come up due to changing circumstances once a project is under way (e.g., one of the project members drops out).
- Individual labs can write and disseminate their own authorship policies and procedures. You could consider also including these in a lab manual. These policies could be revisited over time as personnel and circumstances change.
- Most journals already require that the corresponding author attest that the other authors are in agreement with the entire content of the paper. A manuscript should only be submitted if everybody agrees. Institutions could set up policies and procedures to assure that all researchers understand and abide by this requirement.
Being proactive can help mitigate the risk of possible authorship disputes. We recognize though that even in these situations, frustrations and disappointments happen. But assuming these are not pervasive issues, it is how we manage these conflicts and frustrations in a civil professional way that is key for maintaining safe and respectful workplaces, conducive to high quality research.