Responsible Authorship and Publication
Publishing a paper exemplifies what science is all about. It is the culmination of a process that begins with a unique and biologically relevant question, addresses that question through a series of well conceived, executed, and interpreted experiments, and communicates a synthesis of the data to fellow scientists and the public as both a meaningful advance and a premise for the next set of questions. It is at the heart of what we do. Publications are central to recognition. They are the basis for honors, status, promotion, and funding. As with anything so vital to success, authorship and publication are subject to ethical distortion, hence obligations inherent to these practices must be very carefully understood.
The background section is here is divided into two parts: authorship and publication.
The following, an excerpt from the Office of Research Integrity’s RCR Casebook discussing accountability and credit due, sums it up best:
“There are two good reasons for giving authors proper attribution for their published work.
First, identifying authors holds individuals accountable for the study’s integrity and the publication’s accuracy. When authors publish an article, they declare that they have:
- Participated in the writing or editing of the manuscript
- Contributed intellectually to the content of the manuscript (e.g., by providing the hypothesis, designing the study, or analyzing the results)
- Reviewed and approved the final version of the manuscript
Second, identifying authors bestows due credit on them for their contributions to the scientific literature. The status and prestige of researchers are often directly proportionate to the quality and quantity of their publications, and committees typically evaluate publications when making determinations regarding promotion, tenure, prizes, grants and contracts.
Nevertheless, the expressions ‘authorship is a meal ticket’ and ‘publish or perish’ convey harsh realities within some academic settings. Pressures to publish may contribute to questionable authorship practices such as ghost authorship, which occurs when someone from an industry sponsor writes the first draft of the manuscript and is never acknowledged as an author. Other questionable practices include gift authorship—when someone is listed as an author without actually contributing to the study or manuscript and ‘salami publication’, in which multiple publications report on essentially the same work.
While authorship may seem a straightforward matter, determining authorship and authorship order has become increasingly complicated. Interdisciplinary collaboration may be essential when a project is large and multifaceted, requiring diverse skills and frameworks, but it can also lead to disputes over assigning authorship (e.g., determining the meaning of ‘first author” or “last author’). Projects that require the collaboration of numerous co-investigators at multiple sites in order to meet enrollment goals or to generate sufficient data can sometimes involve major contributions from as many as 20 researchers. Should all 20 individuals be listed on all publications ensuing from the study?
Even if researchers are committed to behaving with integrity and are clear about the criteria for authorship (see above), clarifying when an individual has contributed enough to a project to earn the right to contribute to the writing or editing of a manuscript is not always so straightforward. In some cases, it may be most appropriate to publish an article 'on behalf of' a larger group of contributors; in other cases, an acknowledgement is most appropriate.
Matters of authorship are rarely black and white, and the gray areas in between have plenty of room for ethical deliberations. Satisfactory outcomes are more likely when all contributors to a project openly discuss authorship issues at the start of a project and as data are ready to report.”
Ethical considerations in putting the work together or in the publication process itself are discussed at length in both Scientific Integrity (Macrina, ASM Press) and Responsible Conduct of Research (Shamoo and Resnick, Oxford). These books are available in electronic form from the Biomedical Library. Beyond plagiarism, conflict, and peer review, which are discussed in other RCR modules, the relevant considerations are:
Prior publication. One needs to ask whether a poster, invited short paper, or published proceedings of one’s work preclude publication of the work subsequently in a journal. The PNAS policy on prior publication informs authors that “PNAS considers results to have already been published if they have appeared in sufficient detail to allow replication, are publicly accessible with a fixed content, and have been validated by review. A paper has surely been published if it has appeared in a journal cited by any widely used abstracting service, whether in print or online, in English or in any other language.”
Simultaneous submission. Most journals prohibit simultaneous submission of manuscripts to two or more journals. The ethical dimensions of this policy likely relate to the undue expenditure of time and resources in the review process. There can be issues as well in copyright and/or license assignment. Macrina brings up the additional point that the paper defaults to whichever journal first accepts it, which may have an impact on the readership for which it was intended.
Unpublished work. Sometimes phrased as ‘personal communication’, ‘data not shown’, or ‘manuscript in publication’, citation of unpublished work can be quite useful and certainly warranted. But if important to the paper, the unpublished work must be verifiable. A journal will usually require proof of permission for a personal communication. One should have such permission in written form under all circumstances.
Digital images. The paper ‘What’s in a picture? The temptation of image manipulation’ (J. Cell Biol. 166: 22–15, 2004) is invaluable reading. Guidelines provided by the Journal of Cell Biology are:
- No specific feature within an image may be enhanced, obscured, moved, removed, or introduced.
- The grouping of images from different parts of the same gel, or from different gels, fields, or exposures, must be made explicit by the arrangement of the figure (i.e., using dividing lines) and in the text of the figure legend.
- Adjustments of brightness, contrast, or color balance are acceptable if they are applied to every pixel in the image and as long as they do not obscure, eliminate, or misrepresent any information present in the original, including the background. Non-linear adjustments (e.g., changes to gamma settings) must be disclosed in the figure legend.
Experimental design and reproducibility: NIH reports that it has gained consensus among a large number of publishers regarding robust experimental design and reproducibility. Elements of the consensus – rigorous statistical analysis, transparency in reporting, data and material sharing, consideration of refutations, consideration of best practice guidelines, and endorsements – can be found at https://www.nih.gov/research-training/rigor-reproducibility/principles-guidelines-reporting-preclinical-research. Experimental design and reproducibility is formally not an RCR topic. A module covering providing extensive coverage of this topic (‘REDTER’) for BGS faculty and students is nonetheless provided elsewhere for guidance in required training.
Policies and Guidelines
Intramural guidelines exist only for authorship. The following is a link to the policy governing BGS students: https://www.med.upenn.edu/bgs/assets/user-content/documents/bgsauthorshippolicy-may18-2012.pdf. Topics are qualifications for authorship, responsibilities of authors, unacceptable authorship, disclosure of funding and conflicts of interest, dispute resolution, and violations of policy
Two textbooks provide excellent discussions of authorship and publication. Both are electronically accessible through the Biomedical Library. These are:
Scientific Integrity, F.L. Macrina, 4th ed.
Responsible Conduct of Research, A.E. Shamoo and D.B. Resnick, 3rd ed.
The Council of Science Editors has some quite good resources under the heading of ‘Editorial Policies’: http://www.councilscienceeditors.org/resource-library/editorial-policies/