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Caroline Whitbeck Elmer G. Beamer-Hubert H. Schneider Emerita Professor in Ethics Case Western Reserve University Case Western Reserve University More Posts
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Responsible Authorship


Author(s) Caroline Whitbeck

A module covering ethical issues that arise in publishing research individually, collaboratively, and as a student in various fields.

Author(s): Caroline Whitbeck

Background and Module Content

Publication of research disseminates knowledge and stimulates its growth. In return, the author receives credit for the contribution. To encourage investigators to promptly share their discoveries, innovations, and ideas, the convention was established that the investigators who first submit a manuscript describing their work is given credit for it.

Competition among investigators has a long history. For example, the Seventeenth Century Isaac Newton especially wanted credit for being the first to make certain discoveries. He was particularly concerned that Leibniz would claim to have discovered the calculus first. Newton resorted to distributing his findings in anagrams (a reordering of the letters describing his discoveries into a new, usually nonsensical, string of words). When another person claimed the same discovery, Newton could unscramble his anagram to show that he discovered it first. While this may have helped Newton to secure credit for an idea, it failed to do anything to advance knowledge. Other scientists chose to wait until they felt they had the whole story and so could publish the definitive treatise on a subject. Of course, this desire for credit was another barrier to the dissemination of knowledge. In order to help harmonize the two goals of advancing knowledge and fairly apportioning credit, Henry Oldenberg, the secretary of the British Royal Society, offered researchers prompt publication of their work in the society's journal, together with a promise that the Society would stand behind the scientists' claims to be the first to discover the phenomena in question. Thus was born the convention that priority goes to the person who published first. That convention was modified to be go to the person who first submits the finding for publication. This modification helps ensure that a person does not lose credit because of a delay by reviewers or publishers.

Today, similar tension between the goals of contributing to the growth of scientific knowledge and gaining credit for work exists. Today, research is no longer the hobby of upperclass and independently wealthy men. Research is now understood as a socially important activity and worthy of public support. Judging who is worthy to receive public funding is greatly dependent on one's record of prior accomplishment. That record is largely a record of publication. Therefore, credit is not merely valued for its own sake, but it is something that even an investigator with little interest in fame often needs just to continue doing research. Disputes about credit are common not only between nations, or between rival laboratories (as they were historically), but also among members of the same laboratory, or even collaborators on the same research project. The fact that the pace of research is accelerating and the nature of research and research collaborations continually changing, has meant that agreement on expectations and conventions regarding credit have needed to be rethought. Scientific groups have turned to that task only recently. Now increasingly such groups develop guidelines on behavior that apply broadly and develop resources for investigators to identify where they need to examine practices and establish guidelines that are workable in the particular fields in which they work.

This module informs users about recent guidelines and helps groups to develop agreement on more specific field-specific and institution-specific means to adhere to those guidelines and amicably work out differences. Ethical norms governing responsible authorship, fair credit in research, and field-dependent conventions, and guidelines from particular journals as to authors' obligations. For the related topic of the responsibilities of editors and of reviewers of articles and grant proposals look here.

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Method and Scenarios

Distribution of scenarios to the participants (students, trainees, and faculty).

  • Panel or small group discussion based on those scenarios and questions and any others that students or faculty wish to add.

Alternative Method: Student interviews of actual or potential research supervisors with sample questions.

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Recommended Reading in Preparation for the Discussion of Scenarios

Responsible Conduct of Authors, Reviewers, and of Research Supervisors and Trainees by Caroline Whitbeck and Stephanie J. Bird, a brief PowerPoint overview on publication ethics (including responsible authorship, editing and reviewing) and on the relationship of research supervisors (mentors) and their supervisees. It available as an Acrobat file

Readings for Biomedical Research

If your research is related to biomedicine, or if you want to refer to the most detailed of the current authoritative guides on authorship practices, it is useful to read the following brief sections of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors' "Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals" This statement was published in 1997 in the New England Journal of Medicine 336: 309-315, and was updated May 2000.

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Readings for Physical Sciences or Engineering

If you are in the physical sciences or engineering, it may be more useful to read:

Authorship between graduate students or post-doctoral trainees and their research supervisors in the laboratory sciences is addressed in Carl Djerassi's novel Cantor's Dilemma. Here are a few quotations from that work.

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  • Understanding of ethical norms governing authorship and fair credit in research, the general guidelines and how discretion is appropriately exercised.
  • Increased ability to discuss responsible authorship issues and to prevent misunderstandings.
  • Increased ability to resolve misunderstandings and disputes about credit within a research group.
  • Familiarity with avenues for raising concerns.

Bibliography (for further reading)

Council of Biology (CBE) Editors Editorial Policy Committee, (John C. Bailar, Marcia Angell, Sharon Boots, Karl Heumann, Melanie Miller, Evelyn Myers, Nancy Palmer, Sidney Weinhouse, and Patricia Woolf). 1990. Ethics and Policy in Scientific Publication. Bethesda, Maryland: Council of Biology Editors, Inc. This volume contains descriptions of ethical problems and abuses that arise or are discovered in the process of publishing scientific research, together with the results of an empirical study of the frequency with which scientific journal editors encounter them. Topics include redundant publication, data-dredging, conflicts of interest, withdrawal of an accepted paper, prior publication in a "throwaway" journal, prior publication in a non-English journal, disputes over authorship. Note that the Council of Biology Editors has now become the Council of Science Editors.

Croll, Roger P. (1984) "The noncontributing author: An issue of credit and responsibility." Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 27 (3): 401-407. An early and influential article about the problem of "honorary authorship", a problem that has spurred some scientific societies to issue statements of standards for authorship.

Jones, Anne Hudson and Faith McLellan (Editors). (2000) Ethical Issues in Biomedical Publication. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. This collection of essays includes several that specifically address issues of authorship including: "Changing Traditions of Authorship," "The Imagined Author," and "Conflicts of Interest." Also included are essays about remedies and responses to problems which include attention to authorship issues.

Merton, Robert K. (1968) "The Matthew effect in science." Science 159: 56-63. The title evokes the passage in the gospel according to Matthew according to which those that have get more. The article argues that name of a prestigious person as author tends to enhance the visibility of a publication and perceived legitimacy of its findings, so others are likely to seek collaboration or at least co-authorship with such people, but the credit tends to then go to the well-known person.

Rennie, Drummond; V. Yank and Linda Emanuel. (1997) "When authorship fails: A proposal to make contributors accountable." J Amer. Med. Assoc. 278: 579-585. A proposal for a policy change to make investigators less likely to seek or accept credit through the mechanism of undeserved authorship.

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Year 2006
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
Language English
Cite this page: "Responsible Authorship" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 8/17/2006 OEC Accessed: Tuesday, December 6, 2016 <>