Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Everyday Ethics in Research: Translating Authorship Guidelines into Practice in the Bench Sciences

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Everyday Ethics in Research: Translating Authorship Guidelines into Practice in the Bench Sciences

Article excerpt

  [I]n the beginning [of my career], it was just two or three authors.
  I think that part has changed dramatically.... I think, in part, the
  change is due to the complexity.... In order to carry out your
  projects, no one person, sometimes not even one group, will have all
  of the techniques, the skills, that are necessary to really answer a
  particular question.

  Fifteen years back scientists could have one or two papers in a year.
  That [was] considered to be productive.... Science is getting more
  complicated. You cannot possibly finish a big project by yourself and
  without cooperation with others.

The senior faculty members quoted above acknowledge that scientific authorship has changed enormously in the past few decades. Recent competing forces create situations in which the usual "rules" of authorship in science are tested. Graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty move in and out of labs over the course of a research project. International collaboration, contextual factors specific to a lab, a particular line of research, the critical importance of first-author and last-author status in hiring and promotion processes, and variations in institutional and disciplinary statements about authorship all bear on the decisions made by individual scientists. While there is substantial consensus on the most general authorship-related guidelines, how credit should actually be assigned is less clear.

Fraud, fabrication, and plagiarism are the focus of attention by the media, professional associations, and the government, but little consideration has been given to the ethical tensions faced by faculty as they try to do the right thing in allocating credit for work that is being done. Authorship decisions increasingly require juggling the pressures of uncertain funding environments; regulations developed by journals, universities, and funding agencies; and the expectations of those who have worked on the research underlying any particular paper.

Our article is drawn from a larger study of everyday ethical dilemmas faced by university scientists. We examine how the increasing complexity of science is affecting conventions of authorship assignment on published papers and how scientists resolve ambiguity among competing values in their research settings. Specifically, we focus on how scientists employ a combination of professional guidelines and situation-specific interpretations to address dilemmas that they face in assigning credit on publications.

Background and Literature Review

The major change that has occurred in the basic sciences in recent years is a dramatic increase in the number of authors on each paper (Barker & Powell, 1997; Kyvik, 2003). This shift has created tensions in authorship assignment that have resulted in a recent outpouring of concern (Council of Science Editors, 2000), as well as attempts to tighten authorship standards. In this section, we look first at investigations of the practical dimensions of the problem--emerging tensions and current institutional responses. We then examine the deeper issue of scientific and scholarly values in investigations of the professional and social expectations that govern the behavior of scientists.

Authorship Tensions

Issues related to authorship extend beyond disciplinary boundaries and relate to intellectual ownership and the competitive nature of the academic enterprise. Authorship has consequences for individuals, in that academic researchers are awarded funding, prestige, prizes, promotion, and tenure based almost exclusively on their publication history (Wilcox, 1998). There are, of course, also system-level effects of authorship, because authorship helps to regulate scientific activity by establishing "accountability, responsibility, and credit for scientific information reported in [scientific] publications" (Flanagin et al., 1998, p. 222; Smith, 1997a, 1997b). …

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