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Authorship disputes: How do we avoid “cutting the baby in half”?

Researchers | Research integrity
Authorship disputes: How do we avoid “cutting the baby in half”?

Hindawi’s Head of Research Integrity discusses the ever-complicated issue of authorship disputes, whether they should end in retraction or not, and how to avoid getting to the point of institutional investigations and retraction.

“Retraction is usually not appropriate if: a change of authorship is required but there is no reason to doubt the validity of the findings” – COPE

In the biblical tale of the Judgement of Solomon, King Solomon orders a baby be cut in two so each woman claiming the child is hers may have half; one agrees to give up the baby to allow it to live, showing she is the true mother. If only authorship disputes were so easy to solve.

I’ve never seen a retraction like this” was the reaction to a recent retraction, which went viral because the dispute was about author order: at least one author was happier with the article gone than accepting their “incorrect” position on the author list; this time, the baby died. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) forum saw a similar case this year and again Solomon’s wisdom was invoked: “One view was to tell the authors that unless they sort out their differences their manuscript will be retracted.”

However, the quote at the top of this post from the COPE retraction guidelines captures the general feeling that authorship disputes should not end in retraction. Hindawi has been classifying our publication ethics cases for a couple of years and I could find one example during this time in which we retracted for authorship alone, as the PI had been left off the article and did not approve of the published version. When disputed authorship ends in retraction we may not be seeing the full picture – other factors, such as data permission disputes or whistleblowing about misconduct can be involved.

"We attempt to mediate between authors and remind them that recognition of contributorship is not a binary in-or-out issue."

Authorship disputes ending in retraction may seem overblown, but when authorship has become a currency and the future of careers is involved they are not so trivial. Lawyer’s letters and even court cases can arise from these disputes. Although authorship disputes probably affect the article content the least of any type of publication ethics case, they can be among the hardest for journals to resolve because they involve details we are not privy to, such as who really contributed to the research and prepared the manuscript. We attempt to mediate between authors and remind them that recognition of contributorship is not a binary in-or-out issue and the options also include an acknowledgment. Remembering this middle ground can help forge a compromise. Failing this, authorship must be decided by the authors’ institutions.

How to avoid getting to the point of institutional investigations and retraction? Hindawi verifies author identities to try to avoid problems like a submitting author providing false emails for their co-authors, we ask authors about inconsistencies in authorship versus earlier versions such as conference proceedings, and we send confirmation emails to all co-authors about the submission. These steps regularly throw up problems (though thankfully only on a small minority of submissions).

COPE has a dedicated page about authorship, including advice from Tim Albert and Liz Wager that dates back to 2003 and is as useful now as when it was written, the crux being to discuss authorship early and often. The influential ICMJE guidelines, though not universally accepted, offer the simple (and nearly 30-year-old) rule of thumb that authors must have contributed to both the research and the article, and have approved the submission. The Council of Science Editors also has useful advice.

British ecologists Michael Hassell and Robert May decided their author order with “a twenty-five-game croquet series” in the 1970s, but today some researchers are proposing to get rid of author lists. A strong majority in a Twitter poll rejected the recent suggestion of alphabetical ordering (though this is common in mathematics), but there was support for reform, such as a “film credits” approach. Author lists written in a circle, anyone?

More seriously, our Director of Open Science Catriona MacCallum is looking into whether we should adopt the CRediT taxonomy, a classification of contributor roles. Let’s keep talking – and keep blades away from babies if we can.


The image of ‘The Judgement of Solomon’ was submitted to Wikimedia Commons by Sailko. The blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.

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