Dispute over first authorship lands researchers in dock

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Rows about the order of authors' names on a research paper can get stormy at times — but they don't often end up in court. That's what has happened, however, in a dispute between two molecular biologists at Germany's University of Göttingen.

The paper in question — an analysis of a tyrosine kinase receptor of relevance to cancer — had been jointly prepared by Marco Ledwon, a former PhD student at the university, and Frauke Alves, the leader of the research team, for submission to the journal Biological Chemistry.

But Ledwon, who now works for Lower Saxony's Association of Libraries, took legal action in February, before the paper was submitted, alleging that Alves had substituted her name for his as first author on the final draft without reasonable cause.

The state court of Lower Saxony slapped an immediate injunction on Alves to prevent her submitting the paper for publication until the court had made a considered ruling.

A few weeks ago, the court ruled in favour of Ledwon. But it did not base its ruling on the relative intellectual contributions of Ledwon and Alves to the paper. Instead it said that the original verbal agreement that Ledwon should be first author had not been disputed in the 14 months during which the paper was being prepared. This understanding constituted an implicit contract, the court said, which Alves had broken.

According to Laborjournal, the magazine that first reported the case, Alves contends that Ledwon made insufficient research contribution to warrant first authorship. But Ledwon says he carried out experiments independently and helped to write the paper. The paper has not yet been submitted for publication and the University of Göttingen declined to comment on the case.

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Abbott, A. Dispute over first authorship lands researchers in dock. Nature 419, 4 (2002) doi:10.1038/419004b

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