Should students offer co-authorship to their supervisors?

Should students offer co-authorship to their supervisors?

Prof. Mark Israel (Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services) has kindly given permission for this hypothetical case study to be reproduced.

Wing Hong is a PhD student. Following a suggestion from his supervisor, Maggy, he writes an article for publication. Maggy provides extensive comments. The article is accepted subject to revision and, again, Maggy provides comments and hands over a draft of an article she is writing. Wing Hong uses material from this article and offers Maggy co-authorship. Should she accept?

Wing Hong’s second supervisor, Michael, points out that he always put his supervisor’s name on any publication that came out of his thesis. What should Wing Hong do?

Reference can be made to the guidelines relating to criteria for authorship set out in the HKU Policy on Research Integrity, as well as the external documents cited in the Policy:

In addition, reference can be made to the guidelines on criteria for authorship contained in the following documents:

The following related case studies may also be useful:

Applicable principles

Principle 1: Fairness in giving credit and appropriate acknowledgement

Principle 2: Responsibility for nurturing researchers of future generations

The HKU Policy on Research Integrity sets out in its opening paragraph (Section 1, ‘Principles of Research Integrity’) that “All members of the University must observe the highest standards of professional conduct and must comply with the following principles of research integrity in pursuing their research activities”, which includes “fairness in giving credit and appropriate acknowledgement”. The Section further states that:

“All researchers … must be fair in giving credit for the work of other researchers who participate in the research.  They have a responsibility in supervising and nurturing research students and young researchers, who will be researchers of future generations.  Positions of seniority or responsibility should never be abused so as to put pressure on colleagues or research students, for example, to forego their right to proper acknowledgement of their contribution to the research or publication in question.” (emphasis added)

The following is contained in Section 2.2 (‘Publication-related conduct’) of the Policy:

“Authorship should only be based on contribution to the research proper, including contribution to the design of the study, data collection, data analysis, and reporting; and should not be for merely administrative roles.  Guest authorship (i.e. including authors who have not contributed to the research) or ghost authorship (i.e. not including individuals who have contributed) are not acceptable.  All authors take full responsibility over all the content of the publication, and if they are responsible only for specific parts of the research or publication, this should be clearly specified in the publication as appropriate.  The criteria for the order of authors appearing in the publication should take into consideration the relative contributions of the authors or prevailing international practice of the discipline, and should as far as possible be agreed by all involved at the beginning of the research.

Where appropriate and with their permission, names of individuals or organisations which have made significant contributions to the research and the roles they played in the project should be acknowledged in publications. These include funding agencies, sponsors, and research collaborators and assistants who do not meet the authorship criteria. Important works on which the research is based, and other academics who have contributed intellectually to the research should be appropriately cited or acknowledged.” (emphasis added)

Section 3.3 (‘Improper Ascription of Authorship’) of the Policy states the following:

  • ŸThe over-riding principle for authorship of a research output is the intellectual contribution to the research process and not merely administrative involvement. Author and co-authors should have significant participation in conceiving, executing or interpreting at least part of the research reported. The research team should agree on which individuals should be named as co-authors, and the order in which their names appear in publications.
  • ŸOne particularly serious offence is when senior staff (such as heads of department or supervisors) coerce colleagues or students into allowing the former to take the credit of the research in question as their own, either wholly or partly, and not acknowledging or giving proper credit to the latter. This is a failure of leadership and of moral responsibility.
  • ŸMisleading ascription of authorship includes the listing of authors without their permission, attributing work to those who have not in fact contributed to the research, and the lack of appropriate acknowledgement of work primarily produced by a research student or any associate.  Due recognition of all participants is an important part of a proper research process.  Authors should ensure that the work of research students, research assistants, and all support staff is properly acknowledged.  It does not matter whether the researchers were employed or otherwise paid for their work.
  • ŸEach author must endorse the whole work. The authors of the research output should read the final paper and agree that each of them has met the minimum requirements for authorship. It is unethical to claim authorship without reading and approving the final draft in its entirety. All of the authors are equally responsible for the contents of the research output; if the contents are bogus then all authors carry the blame. Responsibility cannot be shifted from an academically senior author to an academically junior one, and vice versa. (emphasis added)

The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, to which the HKU Policy on Research Integrity makes reference in Section 2, states the following in Section 2.3.4 (‘Publication-related conduct’):

“Authorship should only be based on a creative and significant contribution to the research (i.e. contribution to the design data collection, data analysis, or reporting, not for the general supervision of a research group or editing of text). Guest authorship (i.e. listing authors who do not qualify) or ghost authorship (i.e. omitting individuals who meet authorship criteria) are not acceptable. All authors are fully responsible for the content of the publication, unless it is specified that they are responsible only for a specific part of the study and publication.” (emphasis added)

The ORI Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research, to which the HKU Policy on Research Integrity makes reference in Section 2, states the following in Chapter 9a:

“Authorship is generally limited to individuals who make significant contributions to the work that is reported. This includes anyone who:

  • was intimately involved in the conception and design of the
  • assumed responsibility for data collection and interpretation,
  • participated in drafting the publication, and
  • approved the final version of the publication.”

The ICMJE Recommendations, which are cited with approval in Chapter 9a of the ORI Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research, state the following:

“The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

In addition to being accountable for the parts of the work he or she has done, an author should be able to identify which co-authors are responsible for specific other parts of the work. In addition, authors should have confidence in the integrity of the contributions of their co-authors.

All those designated as authors should meet all four criteria for authorship, and all who meet the four criteria should be identified as authors. Those who do not meet all four criteria should be acknowledged … These authorship criteria are intended to reserve the status of authorship for those who deserve credit and can take responsibility for the work. The criteria are not intended for use as a means to disqualify colleagues from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them the opportunity to meet criterion #s 2 or 3. Therefore, all individuals who meet the first criterion should have the opportunity to participate in the review, drafting, and final approval of the manuscript.”

Commentary (by Dexter Leung)

In light of the above guidelines, it seems that Maggy should not be offered co-authorship. Although she offers ‘extensive comments’, it does not appear that she had a ‘significant participation in conceiving, executing or interpreting at least part of the research reported’ (cf HKU Policy on RI, Section 3.3), nor made a ‘creative and significant contribution to the research’ (cf European Code of Conduct for RI, Section 2.3.4). Wing Hong should, however, include Maggy in the acknowledgements in the article.

Michael should not put any form of pressure on Wing Hong to be included as the first author. As stated in Section 1 of the HKU Policy on RI, it is entirely inappropriate for a person to use his/her position of seniority to put pressure on colleagues or research students. Instead, Wing Hong should decide objectively, based on the criteria discussed above, if Michael fulfils the criteria for authorship. If Michael does meet the criteria for authorship, the order of authors should be determined by mutual agreement between Wing Hong and Michael based on a set of clear criteria agreed to at the start.

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