Professor Bruce Macfarlane conducted research into the perceptions among educational researchers in Hong Kong of the ethics of multiple authorship (namely what constitutes legitimate authorship).
In October/November 2014, a link to an online questionnaire was sent by e-mail to academic staff with professorial and research track positions in Schools or Faculties of Education in Hong Kong. 108 responses were collected, representing a response rate of 36.1% of the 299 education academics employed in Schools or Faculties of Education in Hong Kong.
Case studies in the survey
The survey respondents were presented with various scenarios and asked for the opinion on legitimate authorship.
Case study 1
Prof. Smith and Dr Jones have worked together on a research project. Dr Jones is Prof. Smith’s former doctoral student. Dr Jones is now an assistant professor in the same department in which Prof. Smith is the Head of Department. Both were involved in the conception and design of an unfunded study which involved conducting interviews. They conducted an equal number of interviews each, shared the transcription work between them and then sat down together and jointly analysed the data. They both made a roughly equal contribution to the writing of the paper for publication including final edits. They are not planning to collaborate on further papers in the future. [emphasis added]
The survey respondents were asked what criteria they would adopt in determining the order of the co-authors. The survey respondents could choose one of the four following suggested solutions or provide another answer (by way of open comments):
  1. The person who needed a first authorship the most for his/her career advancement
  2. List their names in alphabetical order
  3. Select Prof. Smith as he is the senior academic
  4. Toss a coin

When taking into account the open comments, 40% of respondents selected the criterion of the person who needed a first authorship the most for his/her criterion advancement. 13% of respondents thought it should be based on a mutually agreed decision. 17% of respondents indicated a preference for listing authors in alphabetical order, 6% of respondents concurred with selecting the senior academic and 5% opted for tossing a coin.

Case study 2

Dr Yan has a research student studying for a PhD. Dr Yan has taken no part in the design or conception of their project or in data gathering or analysis. However, during the last 3 years they have met about once a month on average and Dr Yan has given the student feedback on their work including suggestions as to how it might be improved. The student is close to completing their thesis and has written a paper based on its findings for publication. Dr Yan has encouraged the research student to write the paper and has commented on a draft making some suggestions for improvement, as usual. Following the meeting the student amends the paper and then sends it to a journal. [emphasis added]

Almost all (99%) of the respondents indicated that the research student should be the first author. 22% of respondents thought that the research student should be the sole author of the paper, whereas 77% of respondents thought that Dr Yan should be named as the second author of the paper. Of the respondents who fell in the latter category, many expressed the view that Dr Yan should be given credit for his supervision and, hence, intellectual contribution to the paper. Only 3% of respondents thought that Dr Yan should be acknowledged (but not given authorship credit).

Two other respondents suggested that inviting the supervisor to be a co-author might be motivated by the belief that this would increase the research students’ chance of getting published. It was also suggested that the student may feel that the supervisor should be the second author out of a sense of indebtedness.

Case study 3

A project team composed of three researchers – Prof. Chen (Full Professor), Dr Lee (Assistant Professor) and Dr Wong (Post-Doctoral Fellow) – carry out a funded educational research project and seek to publish a paper based on its findings. Their respective contributions are as follows: Prof. Chen develops and gains funding for the research proposal; organizes and chairs research team meetings; and reviews the paper for publication making minor amendments to it after it is written by Dr Wong. Dr Lee designs the research instrument and oversees the work of Dr Wong on a day-to-day basis. Dr Wong collects and analyses all the data and also writes the paper for publication. [emphasis added]


  • Macfarlane, Bruce, ‘The ethics of multiple authorship: power performativity and the gift economy’, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1085009 (pdf version)
  • Macfarlane, Bruce, ‘Authorship abuse is the dark side of collaboration’, Times Higher Education (10 December 2015) (online article)