Who gets authorship?

Writing my post yesterday reminded me of a couple of other research ethics issues that I have been thinking about lately. One is the (surprisingly?) thorny issue of publication authorship. When I was in Canada, I attended some sessions of a course on higher education research, which included a discussion on the broad range of ethical issues that might be faced by researchers and educators within the tertiary sector.

The issues were in general interesting but fairly clear cut – no one in the diverse group of attendees had any major differences of opinion. Except for one, publication authorship. The scenario that was placed before us asked us to consider the case of whether we would give authorship to a PhD student who had completed some data gathering and data processing required for a publication.

Of course, publication authorship is often an issue where different discipline areas have different norms, but I was surprised by the wide range of strongly held opinions that were expressed in the room at that time, and subsequently when I have discussed this with different colleagues. My own opinion – and what I commit to in my research with my students, postdocs and colleagues – is that if you provide intellectual content then you would receive authorship. To explain that, I would consider that simply gathering data would not imply authorship. However, undertaking analysis of that data that required you to understand the data, the context etc, and makes a contribution to our understanding of the topic of the paper, then yes, you should have authorship. I know some colleagues who apply a simple rule based on writing contribution: if your content is included in the paper, you get authorship, if it isn’t you don’t. However, I don’t feel quite comfortable with that, as I consider the intellectual contribution over the physical.

What were some of the different opinions I have heard when discussing this? Hugely varying. Some that stated that they would include everyone involve – which seemed to me to be quite infeasible; what if you had a team of 100 people helping to administer surveys? Do they really all deserve authorship?

Some stated that if the content/data was developed by an employee or a PhD student, then that was part of their job and research training and so they did not receive authorship regardless of the extent of their contribution. This also seemed unfair to me; how are our early career researchers meant to build their research records unless we are generous with opportunities?

And of course there were many opinions in-between. It seems to be very much a personal issue, based on our own experiences as researchers, our own values, and those of our discipline. Many others were as surprised as I was to see such variation – this is something that is perhaps not often discussed in such diverse groupings.

What this discussion has made me realise though, is that it is even more important to have an upfront discussion about these issues with our students and staff, and also with our colleagues. A colleague suggested that we might want to consider developing a group statement – I think this might be a good idea. It doesn’t have to be complex, just a codification of what I discuss with each of my students, but as I work with more people, it would probably be easier to have the norms for this issue visible to all involved.

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