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When extra authors get in on the act

Sir

You report that more than two-thirds of Europe's young scientists say they are not given full credit for their research achievements1. There are similar concerns in the United States. A survey of 191 US postdoctoral physicists finds that senior scientists are frequently listed as authors of papers even though they have had little or no participation in the work2. How does this come about?

The results indicate that there is no standard process for the distribution of authorship among co-workers. The American Physical Society's ethical guidance says: “Authorship should be limited to those who have made a significant contribution to the concept, design, execution and interpretation of the research study.” Some 76 per cent of the survey's respondents had not seen the ethical statement. When shown it, half of the postdocs said that, according to their interpretation of the statement, obtaining grants and funding would be a qualification for authorship. (The statement does not specify that authorship contributions should be intellectual, nor original.)

Seventy-five per cent of postdocs had never discussed authorship criteria with their supervisors, and 70 per cent said the criteria for designating others as authors were not “clearly agreed upon”.

Postdocs perceive there to be a substantial amount of inappropriate authorship. Supervisors were authors on 92 per cent of postdoc papers. Guided by the ethical statement, the postdocs responded that in 14 per cent of those papers the supervisor should not have been listed as an author. In 33 per cent of papers with authors in addition to the supervisor or postdoc, one or more of those authors should not have been listed. Respondents reported that in one per cent of papers they were themselves inappropriate authors.

The reasons reported for inappropriate authorship fell into four groups:

(1) Concern about the relationship between postdoc and supervisor. Postdocs need letters of recommendation from supervisors and want to keep in their good graces. Relationships with other scientists in the field are perceived to be enhanced by giving them authorship. Sometimes the authors hope to gain prestige or expedite publication by adding a well-known name.

(2) Minor contributions to the work, more appropriate for acknowledgement than authorship.

(3) Previous work in the field, or expected contributions that did not materialize.

(4) Crediting staff who are socially close, for example part of the same research group.

The scientific community should adopt formal procedures for assigning authorship appropriately and penalizing ‘honorary’ authorship. This would avoid the problem that it can be difficult to discuss credit within a research group. Authorship of papers could be modelled on US patent procedures in which an independent party inquires into the work and assigns authorship. Or a section could be added at the end of each paper to explain what each author contributed.

The impetus to introduce these changes lies with junior scientists, the most likely victims of having their intellectual property ‘diluted’ by inappropriate authorship.

References

  1. 1

    Schiermeier, Q. Nature 397, 640–641 (1999).

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  2. 2

    Tarnow, E. Science and Engineering Ethics 5, 73–88 (1999).

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Tarnow, E. When extra authors get in on the act. Nature 398, 657 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1038/19401

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