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Legally Speaking

Ghosts, gifts, honours and demands

International consensus is needed to deal with questionable practices in authorship.


It is axiomatic that being named as an author of a scholarly publication enhances your career prospects. And where your name appears on the list of authors also signals your relative contribution.

Unfortunately, it is also axiomatic that there are no axioms for how to determine authorship and how to list joint authors. In this context, some have allowed the pursuit of knowledge to be marred by the pursuit of credit.

That’s not to say that seeking and receiving credit is crass. Receiving credit for your hard work is key to a successful career in academia and critical to well-being and high performance. But when so much rides on authorship and author-order, it can lead some toward behaviours and practices that are ethically questionable, even if common.

This is not a new story, but its pervasiveness was brought to light again in a recent article in Nature, which discusses research into the prevalence of “questionable research practices (QRP)” in the U.S. and Europe. There are (unfortunately) many QRP, including the following regarding authorship:

  • Listing authors who did not contribute to the research project (also known as gift authorship), which could happen for a variety of reasons, including to recognize a general level of support for the research; or naming a senior researcher to increase the likelihood that an article will be published (honorary authorship).
  • Excluding authors who did contribute to the research project (ghost authorship).
  • Choosing author order based on reasons other than contributions to the research project, including acceding to a demand from a senior researcher, or possibly as part of a quid-pro-quo involving another publication (no cheeky names have emerged, yet).

The results from two surveys cited in the Nature article are arresting:

  • “Around 69 per cent” of researchers based in Europe and “roughly 55 per cent” in the U.S. said they were aware of co-authors being listed who hadn’t contributed sufficiently.
  • 49 per cent of respondents to a different study said they had been “pressured to include or exclude authors.”

Such widespread misconduct impacts researchers’ careers both directly and indirectly. We know authorship is critical to career advancement, but it doesn’t take much to imagine the discouraging effects such practices have on those who can see, in writing, that there is either no place, or only a diminished place, for them in academia.

A matter of equity, diversity, inclusion

I hope QRP are less prevalent in Canada than in the U.S. and Europe. But considering Canadian academic institutions also place considerable weight on a researcher’s publishing statistics, and noting the work of Max Liboiron (of Memorial University) et al., I have cause to be pessimistic. Even if these practices are less common within Canada, since researchers frequently participate in international collaborations, they may be facing these issues nonetheless.

If this is the status quo, it needs to change. For obvious reasons, credit should be given where it is due. But also consider that misconduct related to authorship appears to disproportionately impact researchers with less power and status. “Within STEM disciplines, women and junior researchers … consistently receive less credit for equal work,” write Dr. Liboiron et al. in the paper, “Equity in Author Order: A Feminist Laboratory’s Approach.”

Since Canadian universities have, more or less expressly, committed to taking active measures to advance equity, diversity and inclusion in the research community, and the impetus is there to take action.

There likely are numerous causes for the prevalence of problematic authorship and author-ordering practices. From my perspective as a lawyer, I look to the lack of widely accepted standards and enforcement mechanisms.

Some Canadian policy examples

That’s not to say there are no standards or enforcement mechanisms in place already. The Tri-Agency Framework; Responsible Conduct of Research, and many Canadian institutions have policies that specifically identify inappropriate authorship as misconduct. Some are short and to the point, such as the University of Alberta’s (section 4c) and the University of Waterloo’s (section 14.2.2). Others get into more detail, such as the University of British Columbia’s (see sections 2 on responsibilities and 3.2.5 and 3.2.6 on scholarly misconduct), the University of Toronto’s (section 4.1 (l)) and Dalhousie University’s (schedule A, section f).

These policies are important, because breaches of institutional policy are serious in and of themselves. And, these policies do not exist in a vacuum; breaches can have wide-ranging implications. For example, compliance with institutional policies is a term of every researcher’s employment, and a breach can, therefore, result in an investigation that may lead to sanctions from the university.

Compliance with an institution’s research policies is also a term or condition of most grant or funding agreements; therefore, a breach of a research policy may also be a breach of a grant or funding agreement.

Similarly, the terms of publication agreements normally require properly naming all authors and securing their consent to the publication. Practically speaking, by leaving out an author (i.e. ghosting them), the publisher arguably does not have the authorization required to publish the article, and once discovered, the omission would justify at least revising the list of authors and possibly retracting the article.

But, it appears that these policy and legal issues have not been sufficient deterrents from the unethical authoring practices discussed in the Nature article.

Towards international consensus

As a university lawyer, and not a researcher, far be it for me to stick my oar in and propose a specific solution. I would, however, suggest the reconsideration of a time-worn idea: could an international group of academic researchers, research administrators, funding agencies, and journal editors come together to draft a detailed set of principles and credible, practical and proactive tools to help researchers apply them?

Such a group need not start from scratch; there are many institutional standards to draw from, and there are the recommendations published by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), sometimes referred to as the Vancouver recommendations.

I would also expect this group to consider enforcement and dispute resolution, so that those who witness or experience misconduct, and those whose conduct is questioned, have fair and accountable mechanisms through which to raise concerns and be heard.

This is difficult work as it will touch upon fundamental issues around university structure, advancement, and inherent power imbalances. It will also need to grapple with emerging technologies, including the use of artificial intelligence tools that generate written content.

It is, nonetheless, important work. “Questionable research practices” undermine the public’s confidence in the academic community. While other types of misconduct, such as falsifying data, are more in the public eye (including a recent article in University Affairs), the issue of inaccurate authorship is even more insidious and harmful because it interferes with the careers and prospects of young and diverse researchers. The stakes are high, so get together (maybe in Vancouver again, to recapture the ICMJE magic), roll up your sleeves, write up the new rules, and make sure everyone gets the authorship credit they deserve.

Michal Jaworski is a partner and co-chair of the higher learning practice group at Clark Wilson LLP in Vancouver. He previously served as an in-house counsel at the University of British Columbia.
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  1. Madhu Purewal / February 1, 2023 at 09:09

    Thank you Michael for your thoughtful comments and suggestions.

  2. Tamsin Miley / February 2, 2023 at 14:36

    “Cause for pessimism”, indeed, Michal! We need more Reasons To Be Cheerful [Pt. 3]. Where are Ian Drury and The blockheads when we need them?

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