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The Co-Authorship Controversy
Secondary Title Co-Authorship Controversy

Added02/16/2006

Updated10/28/2015

Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
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Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Notes Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 2, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1998
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Rights The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) grants permission to use these case and commentary material with the citation indicated above.
Year 2006
Publisher provided Keywords acknowledgment and Authorship Cases Collaboration Credit Hypothetical issues post-doc professional Publication research student trainee Type: University
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
Language English
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  • Michael  Pritchard

    Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    Michael Pritchard 

    Western Michigan University



    Part 1


    At first glance, it seems appropriate for Dr. McClair to suggest to Peggy that she do some of her experiments in Dr. Gleeson's laboratory. The lab was well set up for the experiments, and Peggy would have the advantage of working with another set of researchers. In all, it seems that Peggy will benefit a great deal from this arrangement.


    However, at second glance, some questions should be raised. Just what is the relationship between McClair and his collaborator? Was McClair thinking primarily about how Peggy's work might benefit from working with Gleeson, or was he thinking more about how he and his collaborator might benefit? This issue is complicated by the tension that seems to exist between McClair/Gleeson and Peggy's adviser, Dr. Jones. Jones apparently told Peggy that she was reluctant to have Peggy visit Gleeson's lab because her work paralleled McClair/Gleeson's to a significant degree. We seem to have colleagues in competition within the same academic department. At least Jones is reluctant to share her own (and Peggy's) unpublished results with McClair/Gleeson. We are not told whether McClair/Gleeson are similarly reluctant. In any case, a possible reading of the scenario is that McClair/Gleeson are prepared to gain access to Jones's work via Peggy. If that is a plausible reading, then McClair's motives are highly questionable even if it should turn out that Peggy's work is strengthened. Essentially, she is being viewed more as a resource by McClair/Gleeson than as a student they are helping to complete a successful dissertation. We might wonder if McClair has a conflict of interest.


    Similar questions might be raised about Jones's position. Presumably, Peggy's aim is to complete her research and write a successful dissertation. Jones, as her adviser, has a responsibility to advise her well in the pursuit of these ends. Working with Gleeson may be in Peggy's best interest but contrary to Jones's interests. We need to ask whether Jones has a conflict of interest.


    To her credit, Jones does alert Peggy to her concerns, However, it seems that the burden is placed on Peggy to work out whatever problems this arrangement might pose, since it is Peggy, not Jones, who confers with McClair/Gleeson about Jones's concerns. The McClair/Gleeson response is puzzling. They assure Peggy that her going to the London lab is "a collaboration and that she should definitely be willing to share her research." At this point it would have been advisable for Peggy to get this assurance from Jones as well. Better, Jones, McClair and Gleeson should have conferred in order to clarify, to their mutual satisfaction, what Peggy's role would be; and their understanding should have been communicated clearly to Peggy before she was expected to decide whether to go to London.


    Unfortunately, Peggy is caught in the middle. This is not a problem of her making; yet it seems that she has been given primary responsibility for working it out. At this point, it seems that neither Jones nor McClair/Gleeson have exhibited appropriate sensitivity to Peggy's best interests. I would give them low marks as advisers.


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    Part 2


    The fact that Peggy received a preprint of the paper from Gleeson's lab indicates that the lab acknowledges Peggy's helpfulness on the project. Whether she deserves a listing as co-author is the key question. If they did, indeed, use a protocol that Peggy had established as part of her dissertation, it seems that she might have a case for being listed. At this point she should consult with both McClair and Jones. They should be in a good position to assess the strength of her contribution, and they are thoroughly familiar with the standard criteria used in establishing author lists. As a collaborator, McClair should be familiar with the work of the Gleeson lab; and, as one of Peggy's advisers, he should be willing to fight for whatever she is due. Jones, as Peggy's main adviser, should be willing to go to bat for Peggy, and she will not have the constraints McClair might feel because he collaborates with Gleeson.


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    Part 3


    Gleeson's reasons for not including Peggy as co-author are questionable, as stated. If Peggy's protocols were used, that might be a basis for co-authorship even if she did not conduct the experiments herself. Presumably there are other authors who did not conduct these experiments. Gleeson's claim that they were planning to do these studies prior to Peggy's arrival might be true in a general sense. The question is whether she contributed in some more specific way to the success of the experiments (by offering her protocols, e.g.). If the answer is negative, then we need to ask why Gleeson sent her the preprint, with its acknowledgment of her help. Just how did she help? Finally, it isn't clear how listing Peggy would detract from the merit of a post-doc in the lab who was applying for jobs. But even if it did, that does not seem to be relevant to the issue of whether Peggy should be listed. In fact, if that is the true reason she was not listed, the other reasons offered seem to be a smoke screen.


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    Part 4


    Sadly, Peggy's plight in Part 4 is evidence that things went badly for her from the outset. Basically, McClair and Jones attempt to bail out, leaving Peggy on her own. It is unreasonable to think that, as a graduate student, Peggy could have anticipated where all of this might lead. Clearly, it was in her best interests to have the terms of her work in the London lab spelled out in advance as much as possible. Jones should have been insistent on Peggy's behalf. That would have required her to talk directly with McClair and Gleeson. McClair and Gleeson should have been as explicit as they could be with Peggy from the outset. A sign that things might not go well is that, even at this initial juncture, full responsibility seemed to be placed on Peggy to attend to all these matters; yet, of all the parties in this story, she was the least prepared to handle such responsibility.


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    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 2, 1998 

    edited by Brian Schrag

  • Anonymous  Participant

    Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 2, 1998 

    edited by Brian Schrag



    The main purpose of this case study is to stimulate a discussion of the criteria for authorship. However, as the scenario unfolds, several issues arise from the actions of the people involved. Several of the questions have been included to help initiate a discussion on how the actions of each character contributed to the eventual conflict.


    Questions 1-3


    In the first part of this scenario, McClair suggests some experiments that Platt should do for her thesis project. As a committee member, he has a right and a responsibility to suggest experiments that should be performed in order to reach the goals of Platt's thesis proposal. What is questionable is his suggestion that she go to a laboratory where similar work is being performed. McClair's motives are not entirely clear. Perhaps he is aware that Jones is low on funding and believes that going to England is an economical way for Platt to complete the experiments. On the other hand, he could be aware that Gleeson's laboratory has been encountering difficulties in performing experiments that Platt is familiar with. Although we do not know McClair's intentions, it is important to recognize the potential conflict of interest.


    It was inappropriate for McClair and Gleeson to tell Platt that she was expected to share her data when her adviser had told her otherwise. McClair and Gleeson should have contacted Jones and clarified the conditions for Platt's trip. In fact, it probably would have been more appropriate for McClair to have approached Jones with the initial suggestion to do the work in Gleeson's lab so that she could evaluate the idea and define the expectations, prior to involving Platt. At the same time, Jones should have been more open with Platt about her concerns. Platt is also at fault in this scenario, however. First, she should not have taken the advice of a committee member over that of her own adviser. Furthermore, she should have insisted that the questions surrounding the sharing of her data and techniques be resolved before she left.


    Questions 4-6


    The criteria for authorship are not well established, and situations like the one in this case are not uncommon. Scientific journals are becoming more aware of this problem and have begun to set guidelines for authorship. A potential author should play an active role in one or more of the following capacities: 1) formalizing the idea, 2) performing the experiments and 3) writing the article. Furthermore, anyone listed as an author should read and understand the entire article and consent to its publication.


    Whether or not Platt's presentations are relevant depends on the following factors. First, were the techniques reported in enough detail that someone could reproduce the experiments directly from the information presented, or did the presentation focus on the data, only mentioning the techniques? Furthermore, the guidelines of the meeting are significant. At some meetings, abstracts and "personal communications" are not to be referenced. The intention is that scientists can share scientific knowledge without the fear of being "scooped."


    A collaboration allows for groups with varying areas of expertise to come together to solve a common problem. Although it is imperative that each member of a collaboration be involved in the work, the contribution from each group may not be equal. Therefore, the terms and limitations of the collaboration must be well defined in advance. In most cases, co-authorship is implied in a collaboration. This agreement is part of what distinguishes collaboration from cooperation.


    Platt should have known what her role was prior to going to Gleeson's laboratory. Despite Jones's warning, Platt shared some of her data and techniques, perhaps within the limits of what she felt Jones was comfortable sharing. Furthermore, it is possible that Platt felt that the help she gave Gleeson's laboratory was reasonable considering the assistance she had received in performing her experiments. We do not know her exact reasoning, but it should be pointed out that Platt's first loyalty should be to her own research laboratory; if she were at all concerned about what was acceptable, she should have contacted her adviser.


    Question 7


    Looking at Gleeson's reasons for excluding Platt from the paper, we can see arguments for each side. Although Platt did not actually obtain the data presented in the paper, her contribution to the experimental set-up appears to be significant. Furthermore, merely performing the experiments does not guarantee authorship. For example, technicians are commonly excluded from publications because they fail to provide an intellectual contribution. Conversely, collaborators should not be automatically excluded because they didn't perform the experiments. Laboratory heads (i.e., research advisers) rarely do bench work, and yet they are often listed as authors.


    It is important to look at Gleeson's second argument. If Platt had presented enough information at scientific meetings for Gleeson's laboratory to plan and perform the experiments, then her assistance was more of a convenience than a necessity. In this case, Gleeson's argument may be valid. However, if his lab's plan was to answer a certain question, and if they lacked a specific technique for doing so, Platt's contribution was crucial to their success, and she should have been given more credit.


    Gleeson's final argument is completely invalid. It is improper to include a lab member who didn't contribute to a project , or to exclude one who did, on the basis of enhancing someone's career.


    Question 8


    A failure to communicate led to this problem. Jones needs to be more open and honest with her students. Her failure to take a stand prior to Platt's trip to England and her refusal to support Platt's pursuit of authorship may suggest that she should not be an academic research adviser. Not all good scientists are good mentors. Greater communication also should have existed between Jones and McClair. Faculty members should not purposely contradict each other. Furthermore, all three professors involved had a power advantage over Platt. It is difficult for a student to ignore the instructions of faculty members. However, when they are giving opposing directions the situation becomes impossible. Platt has obvious reasons for wanting to keep all three people content: Jones is her adviser, McClair is on her committee, and she will have to depend on Gleeson while in England.


    Although she is in a difficult situation , Platt failed to demand that her role be defined prior to leaving. Because of this failure, Platt is not blameless.

Cite this page: "The Co-Authorship Controversy" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 2/16/2006 OEC Accessed: Wednesday, January 16, 2019 <www.onlineethics.org/Resources/gradres/gradresv2/co-author_controversy.aspx>