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Posted on September 11, 2007 at 2:58 PM

Glenn’s column for September proposes two rules for fixing the system of academic authorship:

This spring, The Scientist received a letter signed by Fertility and Sterility editor Alan DeCherney, asking to retract comments he made three months earlier, in which he accused authors of an F&S paper of plagiarism. The authors of the 2005 paper, on mitochondrial DNA in ovarian failure, are still facing allegations from a scientist who claims they stole his research and left him off the author list.

Authorship disputes are a fairly regular occurrence in science, a natural offshoot of the oppressive demands of a “publish or perish” system. So much can be at stake: If a postdoc or young professor receives that all-important top billing of first author, they are more likely to earn tenure, or a lifetime-guaranteed career. (See “Does Tenure Need to Change?“)

There are so many problems with the current system of scientific authorship, it’s hard to know where to start looking for solutions. Physicians and professors are offered authorship of virtually or totally completed papers by companies whose medical writers and scientists have completed the bulk, or all, of the work. This past January, a study in PLoS Medicine revealed that two-thirds of industry-initiated randomized trials contained evidence of ghost authorship. (1)

All too frequently, scientists allege that some senior faculty claim senior authorship on every paper that originates in their labs, even if they were only marginally involved. And, authors don’t know what each other is doing: Another January study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) found that more than two-thirds of 919 corresponding authors disagreed with their coauthors over contributions to the paper. (2)

According to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), authors must offer “substantial” contributions to the design or data, draft or revise the manuscript, and give final approval of the finished version. Anyone who does not meet these criteria, the ICMJE says, must be listed as a contributor in the acknowledgements section. These rules are simple, straightforward, but not followed: In the CMAJ report, only 3 of 10 noncorresponding authors interviewed met all the ICMJE criteria for authorship.

Clearly, the safeguards we currently have to ensure proper authorship are not working. It’s not enough to ask authors to take responsibility for authorship; journal editors and institutions must be accountable, as well. I propose two new rules to help restore fairness in scientific authorship.

Rule #1
Journals must be ready, willing, and able to check whether a submitted paper has been published elsewhere. The technology to do this already exists: In universities across the country, professors routinely plug student papers into programs such as Turnitin, which spit out similarities to other online papers. The program would have to be more sophisticated to detect whether papers were published in different languages, but you can spot many things even without that added level. In the past three years, I’ve received approximately a dozen calls from scientists claiming a published paper is based on a lecture they gave that one of the study authors attended. Both lecture and paper were in English.

Obviously, coauthors should also ensure the work is original before signing off on it, and perhaps peer reviewers should do so as well (although I hesitate to recommend this last point, given how much time many peer reviewers already spend on manuscripts).

Rule #2
Universities need to do a better job of preventing authorship disputes in the first place, and accepting responsibility when these disputes occur. Many institutions provide little or no training in publication ethics, so I propose that universities teach every new research hire about authorship and other aspects of ethical scholarship. In addition, why not send out a monthly e-mail to researchers that discusses a recent case of disputed authorship and lessons they can take from the example? In this way, we can all learn from disputes such as the one over the F&S paper – not just lament them, feel relieved that we’re not involved, and move on.

1. P.C. Gotzsche et al., “Ghost authorship in industry-initiated randomized trials,” PLoS Med, 4:e19, 2007.
2. V. Ilakovac et al., “Reliability of disclosure forms of authors’ contributions,” CMAJ, 176:41, 2007.

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