Research Credit and Authorship: Graduate Student and Postdoc Case Studies
by: Vivian Weil
Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, Illinois Institute of Technology
My data are the cases produced by the graduate students and postdocs in the summer workshops I mentioned earlier. In many of the 27 cases dealing with conflicts over data, ideas, credit, authorship, intellectual property, the writers speak of ownership of ideas. Now, that’s not, strictly speaking, what intellectual property is. Our patent law doesn’t cover ideas. It is restricted to material embodiment of ideas, and research groups, in fact, have a strong interest in generating ideas and in circulating ideas. I came to the conclusion that the conflicts expressed in terms of ownership of ideas were misleadingly expressed in those terms, and that they have, more importantly, to do with recognition for work, with credit and authorship, rather than property.
The research groups in question almost always lack explicit understanding about form of credit, the bases of credit, and the grounds for assigning authorship. Discussion about such understandings and the rationales for those understandings seem to be rare occurrences, and the cases, of course, show the damaging misunderstandings that occur when criteria for recognition and standards for authorship are unspoken.
Because self-esteem and career advancement are at stake, evaluations within research groups that determine credit and authorship can be uncomfortable to make and uncomfortable to confront and to accept. These very natural reactions, I want to argue, make it all the more necessary for research groups to have policies and to state those policies and explain them, the policies governing credit and authorship.
Some of the cases even yield suggestions for policies. For example, there was one case in the most recent group, which is not yet published, that indicates a need to articulate whether credit can be gained from data that is produced when students rotate through labs and produce data in a lab as a rotating student, rather than a member of that lab or research group.
What I want to do now is go through one of the cases produced in our workshops, and it comes, of course, from a subgroup of the 27, dealing with the topics that we’ve mentioned. As in many of the cases, this one shows the absence of local policies and standards, and failure to use any channel of communication to articulate in advance standards or criteria for authorship. After we go through that case, I want to show what can be accomplished when people give attention to the standards. We had a marvelous demonstration in the lecture that preceded this group of what you can achieve if you really give attention to making explicit the principle that should govern conduct.
I’m going to present some authorship standards that were arrived at by a consortium of journal editors and offer it as a model that groups can consider. And then, in conclusion, I’m going to have some more to say about why research groups and departments should—a strong sense of "should," ethically "should"—undertake the responsibility for defining standards and criteria, and making them explicit, and bringing them forward for discussion, with senior members taking the lead.
The first example is from our first volume, and it’s called "Informal Discussions, Formal Authority." It’s a situation in which a graduate student and his professor have two discussions, the first one quite lengthy, over an hour. Through those discussions, the professor and the graduate student together come up with a hypothesis that seems to give punch and impact to a paper by a postdoc in the same group, which the professor is revising. The graduate student is really very instrumental in putting a robust interpretation into the paper.
When the graduate student sees the revised draft, he recognizes the conclusion. It is the premise of his thesis and something that he considers to be a seminal element of his work. When he mentions this to the professor, the professor replies that if the student thinks he deserves authorship, well, then he can be co-author. The student answers that he is uncomfortable arbitrating his own case, especially when it involves the postdoc in the group. The professor then decides to deal with the situation, which he calls unusual, at a group meeting the following week, and they will let the lab group decide whether the graduate student should be co-author.
The discussions between the graduate student and the professor seem to exemplify the kind of mutual teaching and learning that should go on between competent graduate students and their professors. But the situation leaves it unclear whether the student has made a contribution that is significant enough to merit co-authorship. Don’t know what the standards are and how the professor regards the student’s contribution in criteria. It might well be that the student merits co-authorship if the professor is using a model that was developed by the student. Notice that the professor treats the matter carelessly, leaving it up to the student, who justifiably feels uncomfortable.
I think we can say that the professor acts wrongly in two respects. He says, in effect, that the standards for authorship and credit are not his concern; thereby, he’s refusing to accept responsibility for his own conduct and for deciding this issue. Notice, recalling Judith’s point, that by saying that we don’t want to rely solely on modeling, we don’t want to deny that modeling is important and takes place in any case. In this case, the professor offers a model of treating credit and authorship in a cavalier, you might even say, negligent way.
The case shows how a lack of clarity or of conventions for credit and authorship in a research group can produce damaging misunderstandings. In opting to leave the matter for the lab group to decide collectively at a group meeting, the professor continues to refuse to take the responsibility himself, and he sets up a situation for discussing credit and authorship after the fact, having lost the opportunity to do it in advance, and in a situation that is likely to heighten the discomfort associated with assigning credit and authorship.
What I want to do now is turn to a model for authorship standards, so that we have an example of what we can get if people do give attention to articulating standards. This one, as I mentioned, comes from a consortium of journal editors, and you see it there. It rejects guest, ghost and gift authorship. It also rejects what one editor described as this murky business of deciphering what being first or last means. It’s also attuned to the circumstances of collaborative research and to situations in which there are many contributors to the research.
The idea is that the byline includes only a few names of investigators, who take responsibility for the contents of the article. Think of them as guarantors who vouch for what the report contains. At the end of the article is the listing of contributors, with the contribution of each, as each contributor has described it. The editors provide a checklist of the kinds of contributions that contributors might indicate. Finally, there may be acknowledgments, and the acknowledgments are limited to sources of funding or sponsorship of the research. So you see a move from authorship toward contributorship, which corresponds better to the circumstances under which research is carried out and reported.
My suggestion is that this kind of approach is one that a research group can pick up in looking for, defining and explaining their own standards. What is the function of the names in the byline; and why do we need to know what each of the contributors did; and why do we relegate to acknowledgments the funding sources and include nothing else in the acknowledgments?
I want to conclude with the question of collective responsibility of the research group or department. I think through our questions so far we’ve already brought out good reasons for the responsibility falling onto the research groups, themselves. That’s where the problems arise. That’s where credibility of those who pronounce on standards resides. In addition, I think we can make an ethical argument that research groups and departments have a duty to develop collective action strategies.
There’s a philosopher at the University of Arizona, Alan Buchanan, who has observed that there’s a fundamental ethical principle of common sense that says, "Acting responsibly requires doing what we can to improve the chances of acting responsibly." So if you put this principle together with the perception of laxity in many research settings, laxity which may be understandable in people when you don’t have some mechanism to coordinate the behavior, individuals waiting for others to step forward, or have a sense that they don’t want to be putting forth when others aren’t going to put forth, a lot of reasons why—not evil intent or anything of that sort—laxity persists.
When you combine this principle with the existing laxity, we have a strong basis for saying that departments and research groups have an ethical duty to assume collective responsibility for defining and making explicit and explaining their policies for managing data, for circulating ideas, for allocating research projects to students and postdocs, and for assigning authorship. I think it’s a kind of neat and interesting point that the practice within local research groups complies with the content of ethics teaching, and they also make up the environment for the ethics teaching, or the climate. And investigators and research groups must attend to both.
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