26 April 2017

You think you deserved authorship, but didn’t get it. Now what?

You’re involved in a research project. You do a lot of work. And then your name appears nowhere on the manuscript or paper in the journal.

Pop quiz, hotshot!

What do you do?

While you think about that, let me talk about practices in another field: screenwriting. I’ve argued that movie credits provide a better model for contemporary science than current authorship practices. How do you determine who wrote a movie? (What follows is based on practices in Hollywood filmmaking, as far as I know. I don’t know if practices differ in, say, Bollywood.)

Like authorship of scientific papers, screenwriting credit is not simple and somewhat cryptic to outsiders. For instance:

“Screenplay by Jeffrey Boam and Jeffrey Boam & Robert Mark Kamen. Story by Jeffrey Boam.” Why is Boam in there twice? Why are the names joined with the word “and” and an ampersand? And how is that different from “Story by”? If you haven’t looked it up, it’s baffling. Research papers play similar games with things like authorship position.

Like research teams, you can have large numbers of people who work on a movie script. Over thirty writers were involved writing in The Flintsones live action movie. But only three names appeared on the screen.

And, just like scientific papers, you can have disputes over credit. And here’s where academic authorship and screenwriting diverge.

Credit for movie scripts can go to arbitration. Usually, the Writer’s Guild of America is the final arbiter. And they have rules for determining who gets credit, although there is wiggle room for interpretation, like what “substantial” means.

In a dispute over an authorship credit for a scientific paper, there is effectively nobody to turn to for help in resolving it. On Twitter, I asked people on journal editorial boards the “Pop quiz, hotshot” question at the start of this post. Someone says they were should have gotten authorship, but didn’t. Or possibly higher placement in authorship. What do you do?

So far, I’ve had more retweets than answers.

To make matters worse, there’s no widely accepted criteria for what constitutes authorship. Yes, there are the Vancouver Guidelines for paper authorship in biomedicine, but almost every time I mention them, I hear grumbling about how poor they are. Researchers either don’t known about, don’t care about, or disagree with those guidelines.

The ideal option to resolve authorship disputes, as far as I am concerned, is for the authors to talk to each other and try to resolve their differences on their own. But I suspect that once disputes raise to the point of withholding authorship, it’s going to be hard to resolve that on your own.

A trainee might try to inform the department chair of faculty involved in the project. But increasingly, there are multiple faculty and it may not be who is the relevant person overseeing the faculty. It also seems unlikely than many chairs are willing to step into an authorship dispute, or, even if they are, what they can do about it.

Some institutions might have a research compliance office. But because the standards for authorship are so vague, the question becomes, “What are you supposed to be complying with?” You can have a valid authorship dispute that involves no misconduct. Are compliance offices supposed to resolve differences of opinion about who deserves first author placement versus second author placement?

About the only logical step left is to appeal to the journals themselves. And the Committee on Publication Ethics has a procedure for adding authors (PDF). But if the authors don’t agree, the guidelines are to toss the ball back into the court of the institution, which is, as we just saw, problematic. And it isn’t clear if the recommendations for journals to add authors also apply to, say, changing author order or some other kind of authorship dispute.

Out of 3,000 or so Retraction Watch posts, 177 are tagged with “Authorship issues.” For instance, here are papers published without knowledge of “the bosses.” And here is one case where a student contacted a journal. And here’s one where authors couldn’t agree on author placement.

While I haven’t gone through every entry at Retraction Watch, I am willing to bet that more retractions arise from omitted senior scientists than omitted trainees.

And that’s a big part of the problem. There is a huge power differential between trainees and senior scientists. There seem to be few places more ripe for abuses of that power than in doling out authorship credit.

Regardless, it seems unfair and unwise to expect journals to resolve authorship disputes. There are too few standards across the community (see discontent over Vancouver Guidelines). Journals probably have no resources to investigate the facts of a dispute thoroughly. This probably means that in most cases, they will favour the senior scientist (see power differential).

I don’t know what the solution is. But I think this is a problem that is not given enough discussion. It seems likely that in many cases, trainees in disputes will be left twisting in the wind.

The moral of the story, if you are a trainee of any sort, is: Extensively discuss your expectations for authorship at the very start of any project. Be prepared to negotiate.

Hat tip to Amy Criss for COPE guidelines.

Related posts

Badges for scientific paper contributors

External links

The myth of screenwriting credits
Who gets credit for a screenplay?
A Graduate Student’s Guide to Determining Authorship Credit and Authorship Order (PDF; hat tip to Carolyn O’Meara)
Case studies in coauthorship: what would you do and why?

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