Scientific Collaborations and Authorship Disputes

It has become a major cause for concern that early-career researchers many a time do not get the credit they deserve for their contributions to a research paper. Their efforts get downplayed and they unfairly find themselves go down in the pecking order in the author lists. Some unfortunately do not even get to the make the list at all, making them ghost authors against their will, having given their all in the collaborations. This, of course, has a negative effect on the job prospects of many junior researchers.

Anna Hatch, the programme director at the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) which campaigns to change the evaluation approach of scientific research, shares that the incentive structure in science—though effective in getting a research work done appropriately—hinders the progress of many individual researchers, especially junior ones. “While research is a collaborative endeavour, the job market is highly competitive,” she says. “Things like collaboration, open science and reproducibility drive a field forward, but it is numbers of papers, positions in author lists and funding that advances academic careers.”

Only a small proportion of researchers get to obtain the coveted first-author positions. As a result, author disputes and other collaboration issues are rife today. However, many of these issues can actually be managed by taking a number of steps.

One important suggestion is having a scientific team contract which clearly spells out the terms of the formative collaboration as well as the responsibilities and processes. Once this is done prior to the collaboration, it will help to manage disputes among authors.

There are many causes of tension amongst researchers who have published papers that listed at least two authors. There are cases of complaints of their papers including “honorary authors” against their will—individuals named as authors despite not meeting a number of authorship criteria. There are also cases in which the contributions of some researchers get downplayed and their names end up nowhere to be found in the published paper.

There are cases of disagreements about author naming and also, about name order on author lists. Such conflicts can also affect more-senior researchers, although this is much less common. In the end, not every junior researcher who thinks they have been unfairly treated is right; part of the problem stems from a misunderstanding on their part. Sometimes, the project has been done to a large extent before they come along. Besides, those who have other major contributions—like coming up with ideas, building labs and experiments, overseeing final papers, and funding or soliciting for funds, among others—deserve to be credited too.

Another great way to manage disputes is using comprehensive and transparent ways of acknowledging research contributions—who is responsible and accountable for research—through the disclosure of author contributions when articles are submitted.

A good system journals should adopt is CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) which evaluates authors’ involvement in research in 14 distinct roles:

  • Conceptualization

  • Data curation

  • Analysis

  • Funding acquisition

  • Investigation

  • Methodology

  • Project administration

  • Resources

  • Software

  • Supervision

  • Validation

  • Visualization

  • Writing

  • Reviewing and editing

This system helps in reducing the chances of authorship disputes.

Furthermore, it will do a whole world of good to communicate about how credit and authorship are going to be handled before the process begins and also, while it is going on. Once there is a consensus early enough, you are good to go. If there are disagreements, you can figure out what next to do.

Before deciding to work in a group, find out the authorship guidelines it works with; find out how the contributions of junior researchers were recognized in previous publications. Ask questions early to find out if you will be recognized as a co-author; ensure everyone is on the same page before starting out and ensure there is a written record of the agreement.

If the agreement is not followed, speak out. Don’t be silent on it; go ahead and appeal but do so politely. Even if the paper is out already, authors can still be added retrospectively. And importantly, ensure you learn from previous mistakes so you do not end up becoming a victim again.

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