Adventures in Ethics and Science

i-338d0379a341feab51d95f6e50b07a69-irony.gifMy favorite T-shirt says “I [heart] irony. It’s a great shirt, because no one can be absolutely sure that I love irony. Maybe I’m ambivalent about irony and I’m wearing the shirt … ironically. Despite what the Ethan Hawke character in Reality Bites may have said, irony is not as straightforward as meaning the opposite of the literal meaning of the words you are uttering. Rather, it’s meaning something that is some distance from what those words mean — a distance that some in your audience may be able to decipher, but that others may miss altogether.

What, you may be asking yourself, does this have to do with the issue of authorship of scientific papers?

I’ve blogged before about authorship issues, and recently it came up again in my response to an Inside Higher Education article in which Nicholas H. Steneck claimed that practices like guest authorship damage the integrity of the practice of science.

That, of course, prompted a flurry of comments about differing practice involving who gets counted as an author and who merely gets an acknowledgment. And these comments, I think, demonstrate that there is no consensus about what kind of contribution entitles you to be an author on the paper. Not only do different fields do it differently, but different research groups in the same field — at the same university — do it differently. What this means is it’s not obvious at all, from the fact that your name appears as one of the authors of a paper, what your contribution to the project was.

I suppose there are possible worlds in which who is responsible for what in a scientific paper might not matter. In the world we live in now, however, it’s useful to know who designed the experimental apparatus and got the reaction to work (so you can email that person your questions when you want to set up a similar system), who did the data analysis (so you can share your concerns about the methodology), who made the figures (so you can raise concerns about digital fudging of the images), etc. Part of the reason people put their names on scientific papers is so we know who stands behind the research — who is willing to stake their reputation on it.

The other reason people put their names on scientific papers is to claim credit for their hard work and their insights, their contribution to the larger project of scientific knowledge-building. If you made a contribution, the scientific community ought to know about it so they can give you props (and funding, and tenure, and the occasional Nobel Prize).

But, we aren’t in a possition to make accurate assignments of credit or responsibility if we have no good information about what an author’s actual involvement in the project may have been. We don’t know who’s really in a position to vouch for the data, or who really did heavy intellectual lifting in bringing the project to fruition. We may understand, literally, the claim, “Joe Schmoe is second author of this paper,” but we don’t know what that means, exactly.

Don’t get me wrong, irony is a perfectly lovely literary device in novels and short stories, but in scientific communication we might be better off with less ambiguity. Like a number of my commenters, I’m not wedded to the ICMJE definition of authorship as the definitive definition. However, I think that it exists because there is a real issue that needs to be addressed here: we need a clear way to figure out who is responsible for the scientific work in the literature. We can have a discussion about how to make that clearer, but we have to acknowledge that at the present moment, noting that someone is an author just doesn’t do the job.

And here’s where the issue of “guest authorship” comes up.

A guest is someone who is visiting. She doesn’t really live here, but stays because of the courtesy and forebearance of the host. She eats your food, sleeps under your roof, uses your hot water, watches your TV — in short, she avails herself of the amenities the host provides. She doesn’t pay the rent or the water bill, though; that would transform her from a guest to a tenant.

To my way of thinking, a guest author is someone who is “just visiting” the project being written up. Rather than doing the heavy lifting in that project, she is availing herself of the amenities offered by association (in print) with that project, and doing so because of the courtesy and forebearance of the “host” author.

The people who are actually a part of the project will generally be able to recognize the guest author as a “guest” (as opposed to an actual participant). The people receiving the manuscript will not. In other words, the main amenity the guest author partakes in is credit for the labors of the actual participants. Even if all the participants agreed to this (and didn’t feel the least bit put out at the free-rider whose “authorship” might be diluting his or her own share of credit), this makes it impossible for those outside the group to determine what the guest author’s actual contribution was (or, in this case, was not). Indeed, if people outside the arrangement could tell that the guest author was a free-rider, there wouldn’t be any point in guest authorship.

Science strives to be a fact-based enterprise. Truthful communication is essential, and the ability to connect bits of knowledge to the people who contributed is part of how the community does quality control on that knowledge base. Ambiguity about who made the knowledge may lead to ambiguity about what we know. Also, developing too casual a relationship with the truth seems like a dangerous habit for a scientist to get into.

Comments

  1. #1 Bill Hooker
    April 25, 2006

    Can’t remember where, but I know I’ve seen proposals to have manuscripts include a description of the role played by each author. I think this is probably a good idea, since although one can always lie, a direct lie in print is rather different from simply adding a name that doesn’t really belong there to the author list, and never being called to account for it.

  2. #2 Blair
    April 25, 2006

    In my former field (Chemistry) if you wanted to know who the lead author was you looked for the star or the cross (indicating the author to whom correspondences should be addressed).

    As for the ICMJE rules for authorship I can only conclude that they were designed to ensure that graduate students and/or post-doctoral fellow could never be considered to be authors. The reason is clear in the rules:
    “Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.”

    Now show me any graduate student who meets condition 3. Just wondering.

    I have a serious problem with your final discussion because of the difficulty in determining what a “guest-author” is. You use the term without defining it. One could argue the a post-doc is just a “guest-author”. After all a post-doc is just someone who works on a job for a period of time but is not wedded to the project in the long term?

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 25, 2006

    Bill, I think it’s Nature that strongly encourages authors to spell out who did what.

    Blair, my experience in chemistry was that the corresponding author was the PI (the one with the most permanent address), but that didn’t always mean the PI did the most work (intellectual or grunt) on the research being reported. And, in the graduate lab I was in, graduate students drafted the manuscripts, approved the final version to be submitted to the journal (indeed, often making the necessary revisions to get it to that condition, after consultation with the PI, of course), and got to proofread the galleys. So, it can be done. On the other hand, it does seem the ICMJE authorship definition could be used as a road-map to deny one’s grad students the opportunity for authorship.

    As far as who is a “guest” in a research project, I’ve been kind of vague. Post-docs seem to me in general to be in groups long enough to make real contributions to research, as do graduate students (possibly even students doing “rotations” in a lab). Duration is less important than the nature of the relationship: is the person actually a part of the research (contributing knowledge, insight, analysis, etc.)? If scientists were in the habit of actually specifying who made what contribution to a project, the guest author is the guy who showed up and was a friend of one of the actual contributors and needed another line on his CV.

  4. #4 Blair
    April 25, 2006

    I would agree it is that one should never include “joe the golf buddy” as a co-author nor “frank the starving post-doc who needs three more citations to get a job” but I would also be reticent about being too parsimonious with authorships. The reality is that papers can be directly equated to opportunities for advancement and the limitations being placed in some journals seem unjustified.

    Regarding your personal case, I applaud your grad school for its willingness to let grad students prepare all stages of manuscripts but when push comes to shove two simple questions should be answered:
    1) If you as a grad student wanted to publish your results and your supervisor said no! who got the final say? as a follow-up
    2) If your professor wanted to publish your results and you said no! who would get the final say?
    If the answer to both these questions is “your supervisor” then you failed to meet condition 3.

    The problem lies in the fact that every research group is a dictatorship. It may be benign or benevolent dictatorship but power is not shared equally by all members of the group. One person has the final say and that means with non-collaborative work (i.e not work between groups in this narrow meaning) only one person meets condition 3.

    In my view authorship comes down to the degree of input into a project but I am not capable of drawing any clear lines myself. Do you include the tech who prepared all the precursors? or just the person who did the final step in the process? what if the precursor is a significant synthesis in its own right? what if the tech suggested a new approach? Needless to say I don’t have an answer for this but I do approve of one line in the ICMJE rules: “Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content”. I also would tend to err on the side of inclusion over exclusion, but that is my personal opinion and I may be wrong.

  5. #5 Super Sally
    April 25, 2006

    Well in the area of patents, although in a “New Technology Disclosure” of work done under contract for NASA, the list of innovators tends to be lengthy, and always seems to include those from the NASA funding organization, even when the innovation was actually conceived and executed by the hired-guns (aka contractors), filing a patent application with the US PTO where the list of inventors includes anyone who didn’t actually contribute to the conception of the invention -or- excluding anyone who did is against stipulated procedure, and can cost the applicants the patent, even after it issues. If it can be shown to have been done knowingly, it is fraud on the Patent Office and can carry stiffer penalties.

    Can a similar standard be applied to authorship of scientific papers? Probably not, but it is fun to dream about.

  6. #6 Kenny Easwaran
    April 27, 2006

    Blair – if the third criterion is “final approval of the version to be published”, that’s quite different from being the one who says whether or not anything gets published as in your tests. According to your test, it seems the criteria could only ever have (at most) one author, and that would of course be unfair as you suggest. However, I imagine that in many circumstances, if the graduate student says “we need to refine some of the calculations here” or something of the sort, the supervisor would generally be willing to give in, or at least try to convince the student why the changes weren’t necessary.

    As for the possibility that “the ICMJE authorship definition could be used as a road-map to deny one’s grad students the opportunity for authorship”, why would anyone do that? Isn’t there an incentive to get publications for one’s students, so that they can get good jobs afterwards and reflect well on the advisor personally? Or is there some reason why an advisor would want to keep this away from her students? I can imagine the rules being abused in cases with bad advisors, but not in general. Unless I’m just not understanding the situation in lab sciences.

  7. #7 Lab Lemming
    April 29, 2006

    Blair:
    Ideally, when a prof and a grad student have fundamentally different opinions on a piece of research, they should write it up seperately. I’ve seen it happen, and in all cases the people involved generally stopped whinging about each other once they got their papers out.

    As for the ICMJE definition of authorship, I can think of a few papers which would have zero authors who meet its criteria. Should such papers be published anonymously?

    Finally, if journals really want to know who did what, they should ask everyone who writes in passive tense to redraft, such that the participating authors become the subjects of the sentences.

    e.g.: Instead of “the samples were dissolved in conc nitric”, have, “LL dissolved the samples in conc nitric”.

    This would be annoying to read, but it would clear up the question of who did what. It would be great for potential students, though, because they would be able to see how different research groups operate, in terms of which processes are done by whom at what departments.

  8. #8 Dirkh
    August 14, 2007

    “What this means is it’s not obvious at all, from the fact that your name appears as one of the authors of a paper, what your contribution to the project was.”
    ———-
    That’s putting it mildly. Modern papers in, say, astrophysics or biochemistry routinely list fifty, sixty, or even seventy authors for a single journal article.

    I grabbed a copy of Science magazine at random off the shelf (June 8, it turns out), and the reports at the back average about ten authors per article. The winner was an article on a variant of Chromosome 9P21: 35 authors.

    The idea that you could possibly pin down who did what in a study of this kind seems pretty illusory.

  9. #9 qaz
    August 22, 2009

    Blair #2:

    Now show me any graduate student who meets condition 3. Just wondering.

    Ummm… I don’t know about anyone else, but I would never send out a paper unless all of the authors approve it. Particularly, the student who did the actual experiment. So, all of my grad students meet condition 3. (Condition 3 means that the author has veto power, not that the author has submission power.)

    Blair #4:

    1) If you as a grad student wanted to publish your results and your supervisor said no! who got the final say? as a follow-up
    2) If your professor wanted to publish your results and you said no! who would get the final say?
    If the answer to both these questions is “your supervisor” then you failed to meet condition 3.

    As I noted above, condition 3 is about veto power not submission power, so a grad student does not have to be able to publish when its supervisor says no to still meet condition 3. And, although it is theoretically possible for a professor to submit when the student says no, it is unethical and (practically) stupid for a professor to do this. Since I would never submit a paper without final “OK” from the students involved, they meet condition 3.

    Lab Lemming #7:

    Ideally, when a prof and a grad student have fundamentally different opinions on a piece of research, they should write it up separately.

    Wow, this is terrible advice. The professor and student need to find a way to determine what their results mean and imply and to communicate that to the world. We should never forget that students are being trained to write scientific papers. A professor who throws up its hands and says “go ahead, you write it without me” is abdicating the training role and (IMHO) undeserving of having graduate students.

    If we’re really concerned about who did what, we should all write short blurbs like they demand author statements in some of the Nature journals (like Nature Neuroscience): “X and Y designed the experiments. X and Z analyzed the data. A supervised the project. X, Y, Z, and A wrote the paper. B did nothing, but he’s a friend of A’s and we owed him a favor.”